Invisible Girlfriends for Adults, Hello Barbie for Children

barbie princess and popstar

Here’s a little frightening lightheartedness for our Friday afternoon: a new Barbie doll, Hello Barbie, uses WiFi and recording tools to have conversations with children.

It is similar in concept to Invisible Girlfriend, which debuted earlier this year. Both the Invisible Girlfriend app and the Hello Barbie receive input from the user and then provide an original response—Barbie in her perky, pre-recorded voice, and Invisible Girlfriend with a text sent from a gig economy freelance writer.

YouTube’s Chip Chick shows Hello Barbie in action:

It’s fascinating how Hello Barbie begins with clearly predetermined prompts—”What’s your favorite part about the city? The food, the fashion, or the sights?”—and slowly progresses to a more natural conversation as she receives more information from the user. In some ways, it’s an accurate representation of small talk, and the way a tired-and-true “So, what brings you out here tonight?” can turn into an actual conversation.

But you did catch the bit about how everything anyone says to Hello Barbie is stored in the cloud, right? CNN sums up the big problem here:

“Hello Barbie” uses speech recognition and connects to Wi-Fi. When someone presses a button on her belt buckle, Barbie will record what you say and send it it up to the cloud. It’s saved, so Barbie keeps learning more and more about you, in order to inform her responses.

“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,” said Susan Linn, the director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

It’s a bit uncomfortable to think about children’s conversations being recorded and stored without their consent. Some parents, on the other hand, are likely to see this as a feature, not a bug. As the Washington Post reports:

Parents can choose to receive daily or weekly e-mails with access to the audio files of their children’s conversations with Hello Barbie. “We want to make sure parents are in control of their family’s data at all times,” said Jacob, ToyTalk’s chief executive.

Give your children Hello Barbie, and you’ll be able to listen in on your child’s private imaginative play. Of course, if your kids are anything like we were at that age, they’ll probably spend the first five minutes testing the doll, and the next five minutes trying to get Hello Barbie to say “butt” and various other four-letter words. After all, the first thing you do when you get a command line in a text adventure is start typing things like “fart,” to see if the game will let your character fart.

Also, does this mean someone could hack Hello Barbie to run Zork? It would be hilarious to play a text adventure with Hello Barbie, and much nicer to think about someone hacking the Barbie to run Zork than, say, the type of hacking the Christian Science Monitor describes:

Already, in a demonstration for the BBC, a security researcher revealed hacking vulnerabilities in a similar Internet-connected doll, My Friend Cayla, when he showed how a skilled programmer could hack the doll to say creepy or inappropriate things to a child. But Mattel is standing by its doll and insists Hello Barbie is safe.

Ultimately, Hello Barbie is not that different from an online game that asks children to type responses, make choices, or generate dialogue—and there are plenty of those out there. But it feels different because it is not presented as “Barbie, the Text Adventure That Is Also a Doll.” It is presented as a toy designed to learn what children like, while storing that information in the cloud. Collecting information from children is right there in its mission statement.

When Hello Barbie hits stores this fall, we should all buy one. Then, when Barbie asks us whether we like “the food, the fashion, or the sights,” we can say “actually, what I really like about Seattle is the law they passed guaranteeing workers a $15 minimum wage.” Or, perhaps, “did you know that, in some states, it is a felony to record conversations without all parties’ consent?”

I can think of plenty of things I’d like to say to Hello Barbie.

I’d also try to get her to say “butt.” Because some jokes never get old.



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