There was once a time when dolls didn't talk back, sitting silent in front of teacups and crumpets instead. But now there's the new Hello Barbie who uses her cloud connection to chat with children yet such interaction may not be as bad as some privacy advocates are claiming.
The new Hello Barbie, priced at $75, was shown off by Mattel at the 2015 Toy Fair in New York in mid-February. Shortly after its debut a campaign began with the goal of getting Barbie pulled from shelves.
The Wi-Fi enabled doll is connected to cloud servers and machine learning technology that enables the doll to partake in intelligent conversations with children, or anyone else who plays with her. The doll records the user's voice and transmits the data back to ToyTalk's servers, which enable the doll to adapt to the child;s social interplay and return relevant speech.
The Argument Against Hello Barbie
There's always concern surrounding the collection of information from minors, especially those 13 years old or younger. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has expressed concern about Hello Barbie and is seeking to stop sales of the doll by pushing a petition dubbed "Stop Mattel's 'Hello Barbie' Eavesdropping Doll."
"Children naturally reveal a lot about themselves when they play," the petition states. "In Mattel's demo, Barbie asks many questions that encourage kids to share information about their interests, their families, and more information advertisers can use to market unfairly to children."
The Other Side
Without Hello Barbie's Wi-Fi connection and cloud support, the best the doll could do to engage the child would be to return phrases based on keywords she was able to discern. And if the world has learned anything from digital voice assistants, it's the fact that voice recognition hasn't been fully realized.
Hello Barbie's cloud and machine learning support enables her to adapt to her users, picking up words and speech patterns that an offline doll simply can't recognize.
While privacy advocates understand the benefits of a doll that can meaningfully engage children, there is mistrust regarding the other side of the Wi-Fi connection. But ToyTalk, the third-party startup that handles the doll's cloud servers, has drafted a section of its privacy policies to address children specifically.
ToyTalk provides parents with an "opt-out" features that allows them to prevent children's data from being shared. The measure also allows parents to delete any information a child has already shared.
There's reason to be wary of any piece of tech that records and transmits a child's thoughts to outsiders. The world continues to connect itself and children aren't being left out of that progress.
Instead of bucking such tech, which appears inevitable, the more productive approach may be keeping the heat on those responsible for maintaining the data and strengthening legislation like COPPA to ensure violators are duly punished. Siri, Cortana, Samsung Smart TVs and a plethora of other tech are already listening to consumers of all ages after all.