Opinions

Could This Talking A.I. Barbie Be The Future Of Children's Toys?

We’re all pretty familiar with Barbie dolls: we might have played with them when we were younger, cutting their hair and thinking that — like our own hair — they would grow back. And in a strange development, Barbie might have become more life-like than we ever thought they could.

At the 2015 Toy Fair held in the United States this past weekend, a version of Barbie called Hello Barbie made its first ever appearance. It left a few people speechless in its wake, though not without good reason: the doll is installed with ToyTalk, a WiFi-enabled voice recognition software that can generate dialogue with a speaker.

This means that Hello Barbie will be able to hold conversations with kids who play with it — a dream come true (or not) for Toy Story fans who have always wished for their toys to come to life.

Creepy Or Trippy?

Since news of an Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) Barbie was announced, a petition organised by Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) has been launched to prevent Hello Barbie from reaching the hands of little ones. Yet despite having garnered over 5000 supporters, Mattel has gone ahead with plans to put the doll on sale later this year.

And following the launch of Hello Barbie in the U.S, we can expect the Barbie revolution to hit Singapore’s shores in the near future as well.

Privacy Concerns

Privacy infringement is a major part of the debate as to whether or not Mattel is in the wrong for including A.I. technology in its toys. And it’s a valid argument too: it’s been found that apart from being able to hold conversations with speakers, Hello Barbie will also collect the data gathered through these conversations, uploading them to a cloud server which will store these voice recordings for future conversational topics. This means that yes, Hello Barbie will be able to learn, over time, what a child’s favourite topics are, and remember names of pets.

Yet, Mattel has insisted that the creation of the doll was not for marketing purposes, but an attempt to meet the desires of children who want to communicate with Barbie. They have also assured potential buyers that any data collected from children’s interactions with the doll will not be used for marketing.

Image Credit: The Witty Badger
Image Credit: The Witty Badger

The rest of the world is not convinced, though: while Mattel has assured the media of the safety and security of the data collected, as well as its adherence to government standards, skeptics can’t help but wonder if this is truly the case. And unless Mattel is investing to ramp up their cybersecurity network, it will be prone to hackers: earlier this year, a similar A.I. doll was hacked by a security researcher for the BBC to demonstrate a loophole in the software.

The biggest part of the problem, of course, is that children can’t be expected to understand that there is a person listening in on their conversations. Children have been known to engage in private speech, which should be kept just that — private. So I can definitely understand why concerns have been raised the fact that a total stranger might be eavesdropping on your every conversation.

Will Hello Barbie Replace Human Relationships?

Another smaller, but no less pressing concern, is whether children will end up shying away from human relationships if Barbie does become their BFF.

Parents could be around to guide their children to fully explore the possibilities of Hello Barbie, as well as attempt to identify any over-attachment to the toy when it happens, but what happens when they’re not around?

Scene from A.I (Image  Credit: Catholic Church In England And Wales)
A scene from A.I (Image Credit: Catholic Church In England And Wales)

The Potential of Hello Barbie

At the same time, you have to admit that an Artificial Intelligence toy is pretty amazing. It could be the start of a slippery slope — for good or bad only time will tell — but the idea that a child’s creativity and imagination could be further enhanced through this interaction is definitely an upside.

Moreover, studies have shown that role play can aid in the development of a child’s speech, where an imaginary friend acts as a substitute for a real-life person. Children’s imaginary friends have also been found to complement rather than compensate the relationship children have with real-life friends.

We could also take a moment to think about how Hello Barbie could potentially help in developing a child’s confidence, especially if it is tuned to provide positive feedback. And if Hello Barbie proves not to be a total bimbo, she could even play a part in treatments for mental illnesses such as social anxiety. More research will be needed for the long term implications of A.I. Barbie, but imagine the endless possibilities!

Hello Barbie For Adults?

With all the arguments surrounding the launch of Hello Barbie, we must admit that while its critics are making some valid points, they’re also taking away much of the excitement that comes with mass marketed A.I. After all, it’s not just children who will lose out if the production of Hello Barbie gets stalled; adults will be missing out on the action too.

Scene from Chappie (Image Credit: Indiewire)
Scene from Chappie (Image Credit: Indiewire)

If it wasn’t obvious enough, I’m leaning towards having Hello Barbie in my life. We all have a natural fascination with the artificial brain, with movies like A.I, iRobot, Real Steel, and Chappie making it big in the theatres. And as always, we are afraid of the unknown.

In the short run, talking to a plastic doll isn’t going to completely eradicate human face-to-face interaction, and it might even help children appreciate and engage more in human conversations. Ultimately, it really depends on how we choose to use this technology.

And in the long run, Hello Barbie could open doors for the mass commercialisation of A.I. technology to strengthen software and lower costs. We might see A.I. applied to many other things apart from children’s toys.

Fingers crossed, the future that awaits us will not be a dystopian one.

 

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