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.
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
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?
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?
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.