Wi-Fi-enabled 'Hello Barbie' records conversations with kids and uses AI to talk back

Today, Mattel released Hello Barbie, a WiFi-enabled doll that detects language and 'talks back.' But how will this high-tech toy impact real-life relationships?

Hello Barbie
Hello Barbie
Image: screenshot/ product page

She wears black flats, a motorcycle jacket, and skinny jeans. Her curly, bleach-blonde hair falls just past her shoulders. She has a permanent smile and large blue eyes. And, when you talk to her, she listens.

But this young woman isn't an ordinary friend. "Hello Barbie" is less than a foot tall, weighs just under two pounds, and is made of plastic. And starting today, she is on sale for $74.99.

Mattel's latest Barbie, marketed for children six and up, has just hit the shelves. She is unlike any doll before her—not only does she listen, but she can talk back.

To get started, kids simply download the Hello Barbie companion app. And to turn her on, you push a button on her silver belt buckle. Hello Barbie's necklace is both a recorder and a microphone. Using WiFi, the jewelry will pick up a child's questions and conversations—and transmit them back to a control center for processing. Speech-recognition software, operated through ToyTalk, will detect the input. Then, Hello Barbie will reply, using one of 8,000 pre-programmed lines. (Here's a peek at the 260+ pages of available dialogue). Examples include:

  • You know, I really appreciate my friends who have a completely unique sense of you!
  • Here's what's up: I'm worried my sister Stacie is having a hard time finishing her homework. Does that ever happen to you?
  • I think Santa is real. There's something very magical about the holiday season and I think he helps bring that magic to all of us!
  • So if you were planning the biggest, raddest, most unforgettable party of the year, what would it be like?
  • Of course we're friends! Actually, you're one of my best friends. I feel like we could talk about anything!

Hello Barbie's dialogue, while perky and fashion-focused, reflects an attempt by Mattel to create a more well-rounded character than in the past. In 1992, Mattel pulled its string-operated Teen Talk Barbie from shelves after being criticized by The American Association of University Women for the inclusion of an unfortunate line: "math class is tough." It is no mistake that Hello Barbie's lines includes: "Oh nice! Fun with numbers! Teaching math sounds like a lot of fun. What kinds of things would you teach—Counting? Addition? Subtraction?"

Still, the implication that Barbie is being sold as a 'friend' is unsettling. "Hello Barbie can interact uniquely with each child by holding conversations, playing games, sharing stories, and even telling jokes!" boasts Mattel's website. Hello Barbie, claims Mattel, is "Just like a real friend. [She] listens and remembers the user's likes and dislikes, giving everyone their own unique experience."

But is she really listening?

While Barbie may appear to listen and respond, "pretend empathy is not empathy," said Sherry Turkle, professor at MIT and author of Reclaiming Conversation. Turkle worries about how children will understand their new 'friend.'

"They are drawn into thinking that pretend empathy is the real thing," said Turkle. "But objects that have not known the arc of a human life have no empathy to give. We put our children in a compromised position."

Beyond the social implications of the doll, the capabilities of the recording technology raise privacy issues.

Using Hello Barbie involves recording voice data (see the privacy policy here) and requires parental consent. However, Mattel states that "parents and guardians are in control of their child's data and can manage this data through the ToyTalk account." The company also states that the recordings are protected under the "Children's Online Privacy Protection Act," and recordings containing personal information will be deleted once they "become aware of it."

Still, the potential for misuse of this private data is a legitimate concern. "Obviously it is a security and privacy nightmare," said Roman Yampolskiy, director of the Cybersecurity Lab at the University of Louisville. "[The] company [is] collecting data from kids—hackers [could be] getting access to private info."

However, like Turkle, Yampolskiy is "more concerned about social development of the children interacting with it."

"We are basically running an experiment on our kids and have no idea if it will make them socially awkward, incapable of understanding body language, tone of voice and properly empathize with others," he said.

It all raises the question of what is meant, exactly by 'real' conversation? Turkle said, "Why would we take such risks with something so delicate, so crucial: Our children's ability to relate to each other as human beings?"

Despite concerns, Hello Barbie is here, being shipped to homes across the globe beginning today. She is being turned on, spoken to, and listened to. And when children are finished with her, she is shut down, stood on a charger (Hello Barbie cannot stand on her own) and charged back up.

When she is turned on again, Barbie might ask: "Did you miss me at all?"

"Not even an itsy bitsy, eensy weensy bit?"

How children will respond remains to be seen.

Mattel did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

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Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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