The toy that plays back.

Barbie has always been a controversial figure. The new Hello Barbie, which debuted in November, is the doll that plays back. If you’re a Gen-Xer, you might remember Cricket or Teddy Ruxpin (or even Teen Talk Barbie, who in a bubbly laugh-it-off tone declared that “math class is tough” – a line that was eventually deleted). Hello Barbie doesn’t feel all that much more sophisticated. A child might try to talk to her about a bad day, but Hello Barbie wants to talk about sleepovers and favorite colors. She’s a never-ending fountain of vapid conversation. But let’s imagine for a moment that talking to Hello Barbie and allowing ToyTalk to record all communication ends up improving her conversation skills (the toy is currently limited to 8,000 lines of content). She’s constantly connected to wifi, ostensibly to improve her responses. Parents/guardians/whomever sets it up on their phone, receive an e-mail every few days proclaiming that their child has said something “awesome,” with a link to read the transcript. And since she remembers her playmate’s answers, she can use them for conversation fodder later.

Granted, she’s one of the first mainstream A.I. toys on the market, and she can serve as a companion to a child who is uncomfortable confiding in parents, teachers, or friends. There are lots of cool things about Hello Barbie (so long as you have unproblematic access to wifi and $75). But let’s think about the privacy implications – she’s set up as a wireless access point with the name “Barbie” followed by four random characters. This makes spoofing a connection easy, making those same conversations you’re reading susceptible to surveillance or hacking.

We’ve always imagined our toys could talk, but there’s less conversation about the limiting effect that this sort of play might have on a child’s development. Does a child’s imagination develop as robustly if their doll actually answers them? Will a child shy away from other friendships because Barbie is waiting for her after school? And what happens when we give a child an artificial friend incapable of conflict? Barbie can’t pull your hair or hurt your feelings, she can’t force you to think about why you’re right or wrong, and you never have to apologize to her. So is she really all that engaging?

Resources:
Hello Barbie (Mattel)
Barbie Wants to Get to Know Your Child (New York Times)
Hello Barbie: Considering Potential Unforseen Problems with A.I. Dolls and What Children Tell Them (Bioethics.net)
Barbie Speaks (The Atlantic)