Mattel Greets Some Controversy With Hello Barbie

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Mattel is a big deal at Toy Fair, as you might expect. I had a chance to tour their showroom and see several upcoming products. One of those products is causing a bit of hand-wringing on the net these days. Her name is “Hello Barbie,” and she wants to talk to your children.

It's like if Skynet coordinated better.
It’s like if Skynet coordinated better. Source: my camera, Mattel.

The Hello Barbie doll is essentially a “smart doll.” It uses technology created by a company called ToyTalk. Ask Barbie a question, and she’ll answer. More interestingly, she’ll remember what you say. Like Microsoft’s Cortana Personal Assistant, Hello Barbie will keep an online database about you that it learns from. If you’re thinking that’s a bit scary, you’re right. My hand immediately went up “and who has access to this database?” Only the parents, insisted the Mattel rep.

An advocacy group named “Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood” doesn’t exactly trust Mattel. In a statement released online, they demand (their word, not mine) that Mattel not release the doll, due out in late 2015 (just in time for the holiday rush).

“Kids using ‘Hello Barbie’ aren’t only talking to a doll, they are talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial,” said Dr. Susan Linn, CCFC’s Executive Director. “It’s creepy–and creates a host of dangers for children and families.”

I don’t know if I’d go so far to say “creepy,” or use some of the other alarmist language in the release, but it should certainly raise eyebrows, if not red flags. Most adults still aren’t totally aware of how much information Siri, Google Now, and Cortana store on them. To have a child’s toy collecting that same data is concerning. Especially when you throw in this bit of ToyTalk’s legal policy:

We may use, store, process and transcribe Recordings in order to provide and maintain the Service, to perform, test or improve speech recognition technology and artificial intelligence algorithms, or for other research and development and data analysis purposes.

“Data analysis purposes” sounds quite a bit like “marketing.”  Mattel insists there’s nothing sinister about this though, and they did it because when they asked focus groups what they wanted from Barbie, the primary response was “to talk with her.”

The thing is, kids talk to their toys all the time. My four year-old had a deep, philosophical discussion with a Flash action figure the other day. Kids have lived eons without a toy that can remember their birthday (“Remember to ask your mommy for some accessories for me!”), their favorite food (“Did you know that Gummy Worms are on sale at Target today?”), or what they want to be when they grow up (“You told me you wanted to be a doctor. Mattel just released a new Hello Doctor Barbie playset. Tell your dad!”).

The above parentheticals are something of a worst-case scenario. The thing is, it’s hard to picture a best-case scenario that involves a company collecting raw statistical data on your children. The fear has almost gone viral, to the point that there’s already a Snopes page devoted to the doll. One wonders if the people freaking out are aware that they’re almost certainly carrying a device in their pockets that tracks their every move. And let’s not even think about all the medical data Apple wants you to let them track via ResearchKit.

"Siri, it hurts when I do this." "So don't do that anymore." Source: Apple.
“Siri, it hurts when I do this.”
“So don’t do that anymore.”
Source: Apple.

But, yes, those are adults. We’ve already sacrificed our privacy, welcoming our new robotic overlords. The question is, should we be acclimating our children to the idea of computers watching and listening?

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