‘The number one request we receive from girls globally is to have a conversation with Barbie, and with Hello Barbie we are making that request a reality.’
Barbie, the once flagship product from toy maker Mattel, has been going through a tough time of late, with global sales down 16 percent over the last year, and Mattel suffering 7 percent overall sales slump. In a bid to reverse this trend, Mattel last month announced a new, high tech, Barbie that can understand children’s conversation and answer their questions.
‘Just like a real friend she can respond to the things that she’s learned about me.’
The technology was developed a by a venture capital-backed San Francisco startup called ToyTalk, and works in an almost identical way to Apple’s Siri, except that it is designed to understand children and the way they talk. Recorded voice data is sent over the internet (via a WiFi connection) where it is stored by ToyTalk and then processed so that a suitable response can be sent back.
Judging from the video posted above, ‘Hello Barbie’s’ conversational abilities are pretty impressive, but unfortunately for Mattel, childrens’ and privacy advocacy groups are not impressed. Georgetown University Law Professor Angela Campbell, Faculty Advisor to the school’s Center on Privacy and Technology, for example, said that,
‘If I had a young child, I would be very concerned that my child’s intimate conversations with her doll were being recorded and analyzed. In Mattel’s demo, Barbie asks many questions that would elicit a great deal of information about a child, her interests, and her family. This information could be of great value to advertisers and be used to market unfairly to children.’
ToyTalk has defended the product, noting that before using the toy parents must agree to various privacy policies, that it must be activated before listening to conversations (via button on its belly), that all audio is encrypted before being sent over the internet, and that all responses are pre-scripted (rather than being drawn, Siri-like, from the open internet.)
Although ToyTalk does say that collected voice data will be shared with third parties that ‘assist us with speech recognition’, and that those parties are permitted to retain data this data, it insists that this does not present privacy threat,
‘ToyTalk and Mattel will only use the conversations recorded through Hello Barbie to operate and improve our products, to develop better speech recognition for children, and to improve the natural language processing of children’s speech.’
Leading the battle against the new toy, which is expected to be available in shops shortly before Christmas this year, is the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. The campaign’s executive director, Susan Linn, explained her objection,
‘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… t’s creepy – and creates a host of dangers for children and families.’