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Barbie – A Beauty With A Brain?

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Did you talk to your toys when you were a child? We did, and how we wished they would talk back to us. Well now with a little bit of magic, we actually can. Barbie’s manufacturer – Mattel, has collaborated with ToyTalk, an application developer to create a more interactive Barbie to enhance playtime experience. Introducing Hello Barbie – an interactive, talking doll that can respond to you in real time.

HELLO BARBIE

Barbie, or Barbara Millicent Roberts is known to be girls’ favourite toys, with 99% of girls between the ages of 3-10 years old to own at least one Barbie doll. For the past 60 years, Barbie has gone through aesthetical and technological changes that help promote diversity and social inclusion. Their evolution has secured them a place in the global market for decades.

You’ve Got a Friend in Me

In this fast paced life, children are left to fend for themselves as parents work tirelessly to provide for them. Loneliness among children is a major concern because the number of both parents having to work full time has increased and is expected to increase in years to come. More demand is placed for interactive toys as a substitute companion. With Hello Barbie’s speech recognition, children are able to interact with it in a more realistic manner.

Due to exhaustion, a quarter of all parents spend a maximum of 34 minutes a day with their children without distractions. Not being there to witness their growth is heartbreaking. However, with the help of Hello Barbie, they can keep track of their children’s activity because the conversation is recorded and saved in an account that they can control. This gives momentary happiness to listen to their children’s voices. Even without being there, parents can learn to engage with their children more intimately because they understand the way their children think.

The Power of Play

In this generation, 68% of children possess their own gadgets and spend most of their time on it. This basically defines Generation Z. Hello Barbie can be an alternative to tablets that offers more interaction. Parents of these children are concerned about their development in creative thinking and communication skills. Hello Barbie can help overcome delayed communication skills caused by tablets since they have less “talk time” with parents while they devote more time playing with it.

Mattel claimed that the development of Hello Barbie was a demand from their customers wanting a more interactive technology embedded into the doll, inspired by their previous speech recognition toy, “Thomas and Friends” which has brought good feedback from the public. As a manufacturer, it is only natural that they are advancing in new toy developments to make profit. With the profit gained, more investment towards improving the current technology of Hello Barbie and other interactive toys can be made.

Hell No Barbie

Barbie Robot Army
Photo Credit: splinternews.com

But with all the excitement that Hello Barbie brings, there are organisations that outright reject them. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) has launched a “Hell No Barbie” campaign to voice their concerns about the toy. Traditional Barbie dolls have always been associated with bad body images. But add an artificial intelligence (AI) component to the equation, Mattel has received more backlash from numerous parties.

Little Sister is Watching You

The major issues for Hello Barbie arise from topics relating to security and privacy. In 2015, two moms from California filed a class action lawsuit against Mattel. They claimed that although the owner of the doll has consented for their voice to be recorded and sent back to ToyTalk, that does not include the owner’s friends. Others are worried that information that is being sent back to ToyTalk is susceptible to hacking and used for malicious purposes. Indeed, individuals have succeeded in hacking the doll, allowing easy access to account information and recorded audio amongst others. So this begs the question, what is Mattel and ToyTalk doing about this?

ToyTalk apparently does not consider the security breach to be a major issue. They claim that no actual ‘useful’ data has been stolen. However, they have established a “bug bounty” system – anyone who has found security gaps in their system is offered a reward. Under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), Mattel is obligated by the law to provide a safe experience for those involved. But some might argue that Toytalk/Mattel should not be solely responsible, parents should also be accountable to educate their children on internet safety.

Hello Barbie, Goodbye Social Development!

Contrary to Mattel’s pure-hearted intentions, the talking Barbie has given concerns to parents regarding their children’s imagination. The true value of playing with inanimate objects is that they stimulate the child’s creative thinking and bring out their distinct personalities. The worry is that with the doll’s limited topics of discussion, children may perceive them as adequate conversational partners and replace them with human interaction.

Barbie has always had a target on her back. With the release of Teen Talk Barbie in 1992, preteen girls who played with them are more at risk of losing confidence with maths when they listen to lines like “Math class is tough”. Add that to issues associated with normal Barbie dolls where they are blamed for unrealistic body goals and eating disorders, it’s no wonder the CCFC regard Hello Barbie as “the perfect terrible toy”.

To ease people’s worries, Mattel and ToyTalk say that Hello Barbie has more than 8,000 lines of dialogue already on the cloud, and the list will be updated periodically. The aim is to make a more modern, more educated Barbie to cater for twenty-first century kids. Parents can pick and choose what lines they would prefer Hello Barbie answer with. ToyTalk does not mean for the doll to replace human interaction, but as a means to foster it. Researchers from MIT are developing a similar product that encourages families to do things together, not to hinder it. So with these comebacks from Mattel and ToyTalk, did we all just fret for nothing?

Ethics

From a consequalist standpoint, introduction to Hello Barbie leads to better mental growth. It is true that children should not be exposed to too much technology but completely banning the kids from having Hello Barbie does not help either. Children nowadays are glued to tablets so the same attachment problem will be faced. The only way to stop this is by not introducing them in the first place, but isn’t it too late now?

From the viewpoint of Utilitarianism, Hello Barbie makes majority (if not all) of little girls happy. There is no harm in bringing excitement and pleasure to children. All parents want the best for their children so the progress that they make by interacting with Hello Barbie should not be overlooked because the public “thinks” Hello Barbie is disastrous.

Virtue ethics are in play when thinking of the reason that Hello Barbie came to be in the first place. Mattel is a company, and all companies want to satisfy their customers and make profit. What Mattel has done is only reacting to what their target market is asking for – a talking doll. It can also be argued that Mattel and ToyTalk are acting under the framework of duty ethics as a toy manufacturer, to please their customers because as the saying goes – the customer is always right.

They are being virtuous by having proper ambitions, to develop a better product. They did not intend for the potential issues that came with it to be so blown up by the media. No one can really predict every single repercussion that may happen. We should not confine ourselves to direct consequentialism because it will ultimately hinder the advancement of technology. What is progress without a few struggles along the way?

Conclusion

The question at hand is, is it worth forcing Mattel to stop producing Hello Barbie and the excitement it brings to children for the benefit of the frantic few who fear their privacy might be breached? We certainly don’t believe so.

40 thoughts on “Barbie – A Beauty With A Brain?

  1. I still think it’s super scarry because even as a child, I find barbie scarry, I would never play with it because it keeps on smiling, and now add some voices in it, wouldn’t it be way scarier? Plus, I wouldn’t want my child to grow up communicating with a doll, I want them to have real human connections . If no ones at home, I would probably send them to a nursery instead, to get real friends.

  2. There are pros and cons to having Hello Barbie and I think it is down to the parent’s choices and circumstances. I think it is good that it can record the conversation the children have with the doll so that it is accessible for the parent to listen to. But then, if the parents are working, would there even be a time to listen to this once they get home and of course after spending the whole day at work.
    Overall, it is down to the parents to make the right choice for their children. For me, spending a bit more time with the child themselves is more precious rather than having a ‘middle person’ (a.k.a the Barbie)

  3. I have to agree that talking barbies do sound a bit better than playing with tablets. But then, the hacking issue that it brings poses a possible problem as well. Not to mention it’s just plain scary if it suddenly started talking in the middle of the night.
    In my opinion, the best thing would be is to bring children out to play in the real world, to develop human interaction.

  4. When I was a kid, I talked to dolls even though they don’t have any recorded voice. I dislike the idea of hello barbie as it’s too real for kids to handle. We never how kids think

  5. Still better than playing gadgets. I’m also used to play with barbie when i was 4 or 5. So i think there’s no problem in letting your kids play with barbie as long as it’s still in control.

  6. A fascinating topic, which is very nicely presented.

    There are three stake-holders that I can see in this situation:
    1. The children who want to play with their Barbie dolls.
    2. The parents who want to provide toys for their child/children but are (naturally) concerned that everything they do for their child/children is beneficial.
    3. The retailers who want to innovate, increase market share, meet their customers’ needs and experience healthy finances.

    So long as all three stake-holders are happy, then perhaps there is no moral dilemma. However, there could be.

    My comments are:
    1. Please include care ethics in your discussion. Care ethics seems an appropriate theory to include in this case.
    2. I’m sure you’ve seen this page:
    http://www.commercialfreechildhood.org/action/hell-no-barbie-8-reasons-leave-hello-barbie-shelf
    It may be worthwhile giving a bit more information on what Hello Barbie can do, certainly “lets … talk about something really important … FASHION” seems to be concerning.

    A very good article – thanks.

    Oh, on another note, is there an equivalent for boys?

    1. Hi Dr Patrick, thank you for the feedback!

      I believe there is one, the “Thomas and Friend” (assuming it’s a boy’s toy?) which sort of why Mattel first came up with the idea to integrate Barbie with a speech recognition technology. however, it seems that no one cares what the manufacturer did to “Thomas and Friends” as much as Barbie which makes me think…. just because girls are playing with Barbie more, they are seemed to imply that girls are vulnerable than boys?

      or is it because Barbie itself, has been attacked by the public for having unrealistic body image, un-feminist and exclusive, that whatever Mattel was trying to do with it, ( ie Barbie ‘Imagine the possibilities campaign ) nothing seems to fix the heart of the problem, their brand image? for now, it looks like it is not a good turn for Mattel but this could also be part of a marketing strategy- “bad press is still good press”- the public (and me) are more aware of their latest product!

  7. Its fascinating to see Barbie’s development and innovation in sustaining their business running all these years. However, this a huge leap in innovation to keep update with current technology. I agree with the pros and cons stated in the article, There will always be a factor that prevent the technology to be implemented. Thus, the proper way in utilizing the technology is each party must take responsibility in monitoring the development to ensure its brings more positive benefits towards the child. Its really convenient for the doll itself for parents to observe their children development when their to busy. But the parent however must not abandon their attention fully and entrust the doll to their child as children have no self control which could make them too dedicated with the doll. In other hand, the company manufacturing the Barbie doll must careful in manufacturing concept of the doll as it may contribute in shaping the personality and mind of the children. The privacy is another sensitive matter that must be discussed further to have a agreement between user and manufacturer as even developed organization like Facebook still has issues in this sector. In other words, there must be a balance in all things for us the community can harvest the benefits!

    My humble view,
    FN

  8. In my opinion, there is no reason to stop the production of such toys. But, simply put, it should be just that. Toys. It should never be used as a substitute for human interaction and should never be used by parents as a way out from interacting with their children. Over relying on such a toy, would result in a similar problem to the over dependence of children on gadgets. And if the over dependence on gadgets is the main worry, then accustoming them to books would be a better choice to begin with.

    Although, if the security breach comes as a huge worry, then other toys are obviously better choices. And, tailoring such toys to a certain gender, may or may not result in unwanted circumstances. At the end of the day, I believe it is up to the parents to make the right choice to either buy it or not. But, by no means should this be a reason to simply stop the production altogether as it clearly has its benefits as stated pretty well in the article.

  9. This is such an interesting topic!
    I personally think that exposing children to too much technology is not good, but I would rather give a hello barbie than an ipad to my kids. I think that we have to be careful with everything that is so called “smart” these days.
    Stopping the production of these toys wouldn’t be the right thing to do. The fact that the company already provides thousands of lines so the parents can choose is a good thing, because it is not something that would limit the child, and as mentioned in the article this could be a good think to develop children’s creative thinking, social interactions and many other things.

    However, the fact that parents can rely on this to “know their child better” is something that we should pay attention to. Nowadays, almost everything is technology-based, and we interact more with people online than face to face. Giving this toy to your children so that they can play in their free time shouldn’t be a major problem, but it is important to pay attention of how long children are spending with it.

  10. I personally prefer the normal Barbie doll instead of the talking one. I would be afraid if my little sister/little cousin spends more time with it rather than interacting with parents. But parents need to play a role, to be there when their child needs them.

    But for Hello Barbie itself, I think it’s a good toy. 8000 lines seems more than adequate for me for talking to a child. But I agree that filtering topics like ‘maths is tough’ is necessary. If a child shares their secrets with the doll and parents get a whiff of it, then the parents need to find a way to deal with it.

    In conclusion, I don’t think Hello Barbie is a bad toy, but parents will be better off spending time with their children without it.

  11. A very interesting article which addresses currently really important issue where more and more are chasing their careers and leave their family in the second place.

    In my opinion, we cannot put the burden on the toys manufacturers, as their primary goal is to make profit. This is applicable to every energy as, for example, phone or computer manufacturers do not care if you are going to get addicted to their product, and they just provide what public needs. As long as the toy manufacturers do not use these dolls for bad purposes, such as recording conversations and using them for advertising purposes, I do not see a problem.

    Secondly, I do not think that we could put the responsibility on children as well. As the toys are usually used by younger generations, they are not capable of making the best decision, which maybe could positively influence them in the future. They act based on their feelings and they are also heavily influenced by the environment. If a kid sees her friends playing with a doll they would probably want to have the same doll as her friend. Furthermore, does the kid even has a choice if every time they ask their parents for a couple of minutes of playing time all they get is a cold “I am tired, go play in your room” response.

    The only stakeholder that is responsible for their children are the people who brought them to this world – their parents. They need to make the final decision – is the doll going to positively impact my child, or maybe there is a slight possibility to rearrange my schedule and spend some time with my boy or girl. Technology is great and it has made our lives much easier, however when it comes to this matter, nothing can substitute warm hands of your mother or a bed story from your father. At the end, giving your child a talking doll is the easiest solution, which does not require much effort, but parents should think whether it is the best choice for their children. Do we want to raise kids that interact like robots and do not know what emotions are or do want them to be honest and trustworthy members of the society who can communicate, sympathise and feel for the others?

  12. I think that it is a great innovation since the barbie is able to provide 8000 lines which allows an interactive moments with the kids. However, I personally believed that this would be an issue where it reflects that people are too busy spending their time to chase their career, which will cause them to lose their quality time with the family. The parents should be aware that to support the growth of their kids, human interaction will be the best solution. Hence, this barbie doll should not be a replacement of the busy parents, as this would cause a negative impact towards the growth of the kids. We would not want to raise a kid who does not have an awesome childhood as the only thing that they are able to do is interacting with their toys, without getting variety feedback that enhance their skills and common sense.

    In term of production, it is not fair to ask the manufacturer to stop the production as their main goal is the profit. The safety aspect has been addressed in the article. Therefore, it will not be a major problem if the manufacturers did not use the information for any bad purposes.

    As a conclusion, the parents have full power to make the final decision. They are the one who has full capability to nurture the kids for their future. Hence, they should be wise in using the technology by setting a limit to it, so that they are not overly dependent on the technology to prevent any negative impact on the kids.

  13. Very interesting article indeed. Personally, I’m not a fan of Barbie (or any dolls) because of the killer doll Chucky. So to have my children talking to a doll would be my biggest nightmare. However, on a more serious note…

    As a private person, my main concern about having a Hello Barbie would be about the security. To what extent can Toytalk guarantee that data is safe? Of course, I would have consented to my voice to be recorded, but how would I know that nobody is going to misuse them? For all I know, this could be another round of the Facebook data scandal.

    Next concern would be the social development of children. I have nephews and sometimes to stop them from throwing tantrums, I would just play some random video of nursery rhymes on Youtube. That would definitely get them to stop crying real quick. And now, it backfired because all they want to do is watch videos on Youtube, and if I don’t play any, they would cry. So this is a serious issue of social development, and the way that kids nowadays are raised is very different from how I was raised. I remember looking forward to playing outside with my friends instead of watching videos. So is this really ‘helping’ in the social development of the children? Personally, I would prefer to have my kids talk to a real person that would definitely have more than 8000 lines of dialogue.

    I do not blame the manufacturers (Mattel and Toytalk) though, as they see a market and they cater to the market. I guess, in the end, it depends on the users whether they want to own one at home or not. As for me, most probably no.

  14. From sex robot for the adults to a companion-talking doll for children, what is wrong with today’s society? Lack of human interaction and intimacy makes our desire to have interaction with other than living beings is scary. I wouldn’t want Hello Barbie for my children but when I think of it, I’ve made myself exposed to privacy invasion since day one I purchased my wifi enable devices… feels like a slap in the face doesn’t it? good articles btw..

  15. i am big fans of Barbie, i had one since i was 5.. for me i would buy it as a collector haul but for my children, i don’t know, i still prefer they play with inanimate doll. i agree that mattel are allowed to produce what they think the demand was..

  16. I like this article since I am not aware about the existence of the talking Barbie. but yeah it works about the same like Siri and the virtual companion in japan.
    I would like to add kant’s theory to it (but it is regarding AI and privacy more), where if the talking Barbie or the recorded conversation being used or being released to public, it has been invaded privacy which also a basic human’s rights. we should treat others just like how we would like to be treated (good) by others.

  17. Having a toy that can personally respond to me would have excited me tremendously if I got my hands on it as a kid (and even now if I am honest)! It’s amazing to think how far we’ve come with AI and technology that it can process voice queries to give a related/semi-related reply. Like Siri, for example.

    However, I can imagine the novelty of it wearing off after some time, and the knowledge that some corporation is storing my/my children’s personal information in the cloud does not sit well with me – at all. I guess we can never really achieve true privacy in this age, but I would not want to willingly allow a corporation to access my child’s information. Moreover, what about the people in the surrounding area? What if they don’t give consent to have their conversation recorded, whether by accident or not? I personally do not think that is ethical, in any utilitarianism, kantism or whatever ethical theories there are.

    Furthermore I am pretty sure an AI could never truly replace actual human conversation. The minute social cues, vocal inflections and facial expressions need to be learnt from young, because it’s something that requires time to develop. I worry for the children’s social development if parents rely too much on this type of technology.

    In spite of “technological advancements” this type of technology might bring it is better suited somewhere else, somewhere that does not involve children. The negatives outweigh positives too much in this case, especially since corporations are here to only make money, after all.

    Overall, that was a nice read. Good luck!

  18. i want to add duty ethics to the parents, since it is all about their children, so they have to be responsible about it. no need to stop the production of the Barbie because the problematics one here are the parents, if they are not doing their duty as parents to spend enough time for their children. all the problem regarding child social development are due to the dependency of the child to the Barbie or they play with it too much. if parents spend enough time or provide enough interaction with real people to their child, there is no problem to be addressed more. thank you.

  19. I think it is a controversial topic for me. because as a die hard fan of Barbie, I do not the see the problem as Barbie’s problem rather a problem created by the society!!!!!

    First, Barbie had been a very good friend of mine when I was a little girl. It comforted me when I was sad or mad at the world. The idea of it being a bad influence is very irrelevant.

    Second, if the parents have already instilled good moral virtues that promote hardworking and effort into everything that they do. So, taking the example of “Math is tough” should not affect these children very much because they already have a mindset. This means the problem won’t be there if society didn’t bring it up in the first place.

    Third, when I was a child, Barbie helped me to make friends because I played with other people at kindergarten. It gave me topics to talk to people and boosted my confidence to communicate with new friends. Barbie benefited me in all possible ways.

    So, all in all, I AM WITH HELLO BARBIE. YOU GO GIRLLLLL

  20. Interesting topic to view on. As my username suggest, I have no clue about this existing feature in a doll. It’s a sad truth when you think about parents now a days are busy and only focus on their work. Many of their child sometimes have no companion and ended up having difficulties in interacting with people. Having this kind of technology would bring no benefits for the child’s development in my opinion. The issue really comes down to the parent’s lack of responsibility and care. Think about it, do you want your child to talk to a doll?

    p/s : I want to be a good parent in the future 🙂

  21. I understand that majority of parents who have less time for their children supports the development of the product. However, this reason is not strong enough as it may allow the parents to not carry their responsibility in helping to develop their children’s interaction skill. Its worth to look this topic from not only the children’s point of view, but more towards on what the effects are on the adults (parents). How will it impact the relationship between the children and the parents? I believe real life interaction between two people is what develops us better that interacting with a talking doll. You wouldn’t want your kids to be talking like a robot when they grow up would you?

  22. I like the idea of a talking doll and i don’t see Hello Barbie is a bad toy overall. Barbie is an old school toy and it’s been on the market for so long.. I’d like to think they know what they do. So what’s the trouble? You could compare the safety issue with the Facebook scandal but I don’t see both are in the same magnitude. If this is a bad toy, so giving your children tablet is bad too right? Different thing but a similar safety concern. At least, they’ve outlined what the parents could do with it to reduce the probability of hacking. If Thomas and Friends were good enough for speech recognition toys, then why can’t Barbie be?

    Well argued article. Goodluck!

  23. This takes creepy onto a whole ‘nother level! But obviously, some kids grow up with having imaginary friends so really, there isn’t a problem into adding a face (or in this case – a whole body) onto these ‘imaginary friends’.

    When it comes to privacy, if you have nothing to hide, then you shouldn’t be scared. Therefore, as creepy as it is, the world’s changing. This might just be what the world needs to keep up and ensure that all kids are equipped with new technology.

  24. I think it is frustrating that children use toys to pour their heart out when parents are unreachable or too busy making a living that they forget to make a life. But we are living in an era where money is everything so putting all the blame on the parents seems to be unfair.
    Talking barbie sounds fun but its vulnerability to hacking makes me question the security of the children using it. Maybe Mattel and Toytalk can claim that this barbie is safe enough to play with or whatever they want to claim but how do we know that they are saying the truth. it’s crazy how people i.e. hackers or paedophiles can hack and know the children’s whereabout. this is where I see the problem because we dont know the truth in things that the manufacturers say and this can lead to danger.
    and I am also a little concerned about how the barbie reacts as it can be a marketing tool. for example, if the children and barbie are talking about family/siblings and barbie says something like “I have a sister” or anything, this can make the children want to add a new barbie to her collection. because we know manufacturers have their own agenda and of course, their aim is to gain profit.
    overall, hello barbie may not be a bad toy to play with if parents take full responsibility to take care of their children by spending time with them instead of making Hello Barbie their full-time listener.

    this is a good topic to discuss on as it discusses a few different areas. good luck

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