The Barbie and the Internet of Things

Thursday 07th, January 2016


Introducing the new Barbie – blonde hair. Wears skinny jeans and a jacket paired with black flats. So what’s new about her? She actually listens when you talk to her and – wait for this – she talks back too!

To get her started, kids push a button on her belt buckle. Her necklace doubles up as a microphone and a voice recorder. Kids need to download the Hello Barbie companion app, and they are good to go. The Barbie uses wifi to transmit a child’s talk or questions to a control center for processing where speech-recognition software, operated through ToyTalk works on it and then the Barbie replies from its storehouse of some 8,000 pre-programmed lines.

Barbie says things like –

  • You know, I really appreciate my friends who have a completely unique sense  of style…like you!
  • Here’s what’s  up: I’m worried my sister Stacie is having a hard time finishing her homework. Does that ever happen to you?
  • I think Santa is real.  There’s something very magical about the holiday season and I think he helps bring that magic to all of us!
  • So if you were planning the biggest, raddest, most unforgettable party of the year, what would it be like?
  • Of course we’re friends! Actually, you’re one of my best friends. I feel like we could talk about anything!
  • Oh nice! Fun with numbers! Teaching math sounds like a lot of fun. What kinds of things would you teach—counting? Addition? Subtraction?
  • “Did you miss me at all? Not even an itsy bitsy, teensy weensy bit?”

Children have always talked to their dolls – always had a relationship with them that is “pretend” and real! And now, the Internet of Things makes their dolls come alive – they talk, laugh, crack jokes and play games … And when play time is over, the Barbie doll shuts down and is hooked up to a charger and charged back up. The ingenuity of the technology allows the doll to listen to a child, and learn about his or her interests over time and “remember” them for later conversations.

There is no dearth to Internet-connected, voice-activated gadgets in the world today. Siri is an example. Or the Amazon echo.

But these are children we are talking about. Are we taking things too far??

Shouldn’t we be worried about the kind of influence this would have on a child? Are we telling children that this is how a friend would act / talk? Are we putting children in a compromised position? Are we teaching them that pretend empathy or affection is real? And how will this impact the social development of a child? Children won’t be able to understand and interpret body language (there is none here)! Bottom line – this whole thing seems to place children’s ability to relate to other people on the line.

And then there is the privacy of the whole thing. Are we recording our children and handing this over to some corporation? Mattel of courses is quick to say that recording a child requires parental consent. And that parents can manage all the recordings of the children through a ToyTalk account. Apart from this, Mattel says that the recordings are protected under the “Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act,” any personal information that is recorded will be deleted once they “become aware of it.”

But isn’t this a privacy or security nightmare? Any hacker can easily access all kinds of information! While one of the issues plaguing the Internet of Things is that all kinds of data about people is out there for marketers to tap into, raising all kinds of privacy issues, Mattel says it won’t use the doll, or the data, for marketing purposes.


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