That new talking Barbie – not quite A.I., and childproofing is advised

By Diane Brown, IU Communications Specialist:

Original Barbie

Original Barbie, picture taken at Children’s Museum 2010

My fondness for all things Barbie and a New York Times headline announcing a new talking version of the doll with the powers of artificial intelligence hooked me into writing this IUPUIntelligence post.

But my initial infatuation with the special effects of Hello Barbie dissipated as my understanding of the mechanics behind the magic grew. And then a “CSI: Cyber” episode airing days after the article sparked my security concerns.

So I am issuing this parental alert: Think twice about toy safety in this age of smartphones and Wi-Fi. A “live” Barbie might not suit younger children still learning what is real and what isn’t.

Both the original Barbara Millicent Roberts — Barbie’s full name — and the new Hello Barbie are creations by parents looking for a better girl’s toy. (I  couldn’t resist showing a few photos from my personal gallery of Barbie Pictures. Enjoy!)

Back in 1959, Barbie creator Ruth Handler wanted to give her young daughter a 3-D version of the teenage paper dolls she and her friends held dear. A creator of the ToyTalk technology that brings Hello Barbie to life was motivated by his 6-year-old daughter’s question, “Can I talk to my stuffed rabbit on Skype?”

Barbie and Ken

Barbie and Ken broke up in 2004. The pair are shown on Valentine’s Day 2011 when they announced they were officially back together.

Hello Barbie, with pre-orders ringing up at $74.99, can chat with a human playmate, recalling information from past conversations.

But there’s no artificial intelligence at work here, says IUPUI informatics professor Karl MacDorman, who has published more than 100 papers on human-computer interaction, robotics, machine learning and cognitive science.

Hello Barbie is what MacDorman and his colleagues call a personified robot. She gives the appearance of intelligence thanks to her advertised 8,000 lines of scripted dialogue at the command of 21st-century technology.

Gone are the hidden record players and pull springs that gave “life” to the talking toys of yesterday. In their place are Wi-Fi, speech-recognition software and the cloud.

A young Hello Barbie operator presses a belt button activating a microphone to record the child’s question. That question is sent to the cloud via the home Wi-Fi system, where it is stored, and an appropriate scripted response in a human voice is downloaded at the speed of a normal conversation.

The breadth and depth of the possible conversations have stirred up public concerns about privacy, security and freedom from advertising.

Barbie, Ken and Skipper

Barbie, Ken and Skipper at the Carter’s Toy Museum Collection, 2012.

“My main concern with this technology is the vast amount of information that Mattel will be collecting from children about their lives that can be used for future marketing or other purposes,” MacDorman said.

George Orwell was concerned about the government’s intrusion into people’s lives when he wrote the novel 1984, but what was unforeseen and would have been considered appalling in the year 1984, the data collection by multinational corporations to maximize their profits, is now the new normal, MacDorman said.

“What was then unthinkable — big corporations knowing much about us and keeping that data in the cloud — has become the new acceptable,” he said.

An informatics guest lecturer introduced by MacDorman presented film documentation of a study of human-computer interaction in which a child objected to a personified robot being told to stop playing a game before completing his turn and go to a closet. The robot called the action unfair, and the child, apparently trying to right a wrong and appease the machine, suggested that the robot continue playing.

Corvette Barbie

Barbie in her Corvette-inspired outfit would have been the hit at the June “Granddaddy of Corvette Shows” at the IMS.

In the mentioned CSI: Cyber episode, titled “Why-Fi,” a criminal hacks into a family’s Wi-Fi and takes control over a Hello Barbie-like doll named Marla. Marla asks her 6-year-old playmate to leave a window open so that Marla can go outside to play while the family is away from home. The doll also requests a tour of the home, particularly the father’s room, where valuables are kept. The child complies on both accounts, providing a point of entry and the location of loot for a burglar. Thus the doll becomes the inside man for a home burglary that turns into a homicide.

Of course, Mattel has reportedly built in security and privacy controls for the new Ms. Roberts, but as always, parents need to take safeguards to ensure that child’s play remains innocent.

I do appreciate Mattel’s efforts to assuage age-old concerns that comparisons to Barbie can contribute to a negative self-image among young girls who want to be her.

What’s the doll to say if a real child asks Barbie, “Do you think I’m pretty?”

Mattel’s scripted response is akin to Viola Davis’ line in “The Help”: “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.”

Or as Hello Barbie should say, “Yes, you are pretty, but you are also smart, talented and funny.”

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