Hello Barbie Wouldn’t Listen: A Nightmare or a Reality?

Hello Barbie
Hello Barbie

Last night I had a nightmare that Hello Barbie wouldn’t listen. You know, the world’s first interactive Barbie doll with artificial intelligence seemingly built into her tiny blonde head? In my dream, I was confiding in her, expressing my anxiety over my upcoming presentation on the challenge of raising screen-addicted kids. She wouldn’t even look me in the eye. She just stared at me with a blank look on her face.

Okay, I’m lying. But I am an imaginative and bizarre dreamer, so it could have happened, particularly because a doll that not only talks, but seems to intuit our very psyche, is straight out of a scary movie.

The prospect of a new generation of girls (and boys) finding friendship in a plastic, A.I.-controlled toy seems risky. What might happen when we hand our kids robotic toys that lack our most precious human qualities, like empathy and true life-learned understanding?

Circa 1970s, a selfie with my stuffed animals
Circa 1970s, a selfie with my stuffed animals

I was not a Barbie-doll kid. But growing up I did love my stuffed toys like they were real pals. I talked to them and slept with them, cocooned in safety by their soft, imagined love. I gave each one a name (Quispy the koala, Brownie the bear, Humfred the elephant, Vivian, a Raggedy-Ann-like grandma dressed in an apron). In my early elementary school years, I would send them whispered messages and engage in secret conversations from behind the closed doors of my schoolroom, checking in and making sure that they knew I was thinking of them. They didn’t need to talk back to me with advice and affirmation. I could use my own imagination, and tell them stories, confide my anxieties, share my joys, and create scenarios of play that were my very own.

With the progress we’ve seen in speech recognition (cue Siri) and artificial intelligence, it was inevitable that this day would come. For Hello Barbie, the feats of technology that Mattel and its partner ToyTalk have put into play – creating a doll with A.I. that is personality-rich and conversationally capable – are truly amazing. Imagine that a child can ask Barbie, “Do you think I am pretty?” And Barbie might reply, “Of course you’re pretty, but you know what else you are? You’re smart, talented and funny.”

I love her already.

But, programming a doll to say the “right things” is quite the power play. I am concerned about the limitless control we are handing to the people who create the thousands of lines of dialogue for a toy like Barbie with the potential for millions of users. I wonder…what is the content of that dialogue? Will her messages be filled with, and inspired by, common sense, confidence and kindness? How casual, how articulate and how authentic will it be to today’s kids’ conversations? Will she talk using the likes, ya knows, whatevers and totallys that riddle the speech of our millennials and Gen Zers? Will she talk in text and hashtags – LOL, OMG, SMH, BFF, #beautiful?

According to New York Times Reporter James Vlahos’s interview with May Ling Halim, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach, who studies gender identity, “The messages that she (Barbie) says could influence how kids define being a girl. Barbie and other dolls are hardly the only influences on this process, but they may be a significant source of gender information.”

Now that had me listening…

In her NPR interview with “Note to Self’s” Manoush Zomorodi, MIT Professor and author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle said that Hello Barbie is her “new thing to hate.” In response to the idea of kids talking to Barbie and thinking she is listening, Turkle said, “A machine does not understand you. It can be brilliant and convincing, but it is not empathetic. What is healing and helpful is talking to someone who has feelings – who has had the arc of a human life.”

Barbie, in all of her perfection, has always been controversial. But the doll’s past controversy was in reaction to her voluptuous figure, impossibly long legs, and sex appeal. With the release of Hello Barbie who seems alive, and can actually listen, we have a whole new level of concern and impact. According to Vlahos, “Ever since Barbie introduced herself to the world, she has stood at the uneasy center of questions about the influence of dolls on our children.”

Hello Barbie will be in stores for the holidays, and although Mattel makes it clear that she never asks about personal information – like where a child lives or even their name – there has been lots concern about security and privacy issues.

What will happen when we hand our kids talking dolls as friends? Are we jeopardizing imaginative play? Conversation? Empathy? Gender definition?  Or is this just the next iteration in tech toys and a chance for our kids to form a deeper connection with Barbie?

It’s all very fascinating. But frankly, I’m glad I have teenagers who are past the Barbie years so I can avoid another evil doll nightmare.

What do you think?

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