Just when you might have thought that the NSA couldn’t have another way to spy on us along comes Hello Barbie, a version of Mattel’s iconic toy that adds audio capture and response to the doll. The way the doll will work is when your child presses the button on a Hello Barbie doll, whatever they next say will be recorded and transmitted over WiFi to the Internet to be processed by Mattel’s partner, ToyTalk, and a relevant response generated and sent back (Internet lag not withstanding).
At a recent New York toy fair, a Mattel representative introduced the newest version of Barbie by saying: "Welcome to New York, Barbie."
The doll, named Hello Barbie, responded: "I love New York! Don't you? Tell me, what's your favorite part about the city? The food, fashion or the sights?"
The idea is for the backend systems to learn things about the user, er, child such as their name and their pet’s name, to personalize future interactions.
Naturally this use of technology raises some interesting issues about privacy and security and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has already begun petitioning for Mattel to withdraw the toy.
I have a simpler answer: Parents! Pay attention: Just don’t buy the damn thing.
Either way, the idea of having an eavesdropping Hello Barbie around kids and their families isn’t a good one. Given what we know about commercial organizations experimenting with deep learning algorithms and the potentially huge amount of data that a successful Hello Barbie would generate, the unintended consequences from unavoidable commercial goals (i.e. fostering a positive attitude in children towards Mattel products) and emergent behaviors of the backend systems are issues that have to be considered and monitored.
While the PR value Mattel has got from everyone hating on them is huge, I doubt whether the toy is going to do much to revive Mattel’s flagging sales. The NSA is going to be disappointed.
So, would you buy a Hello Barbie for your child?