Friday, September 25, 2015

Hello, Barbie

Not that I’m much of a toy shopper – the little kids on my list these days tend to get boring old books – but a Bloomberg article on the hit list for the upcoming holiday shopathon season caught my eye. Star Wars. Yawn. Frozen. Yawn. Hello Barbie, equipped with artificial intelligence and speech recognition. Yikes.

I guess it’s good that they’re equipping Barbie with intelligence (artificial or not).

But do we really need this sort of living doll?

I loved dolls when I was a kid, and was always a bit miffed that – unlike some of my friends – I never had a doll that “said” Mama in a “voice” that was so recognizably not human that, if you were out of the room when “it” spoke, what you heard was something that pretty much sounded like a bleating sheep.

I also would have liked a Chatty Cathie. You pulled the ring on the back or her neck and got a couple of stock phrases. (E.g., “I love you.” Awwwwww.)

But Chatty C was way too novel – and probably way too expensive – for my family’s tastes. Besides, my brothers would have tugged on that ring as if they were starting an Evinrude. I would have been lucky to get through the full litany of sayings before that toy went bust.

Then there was Tickle Me Elmo, which I believe my niece Molly might have had. She had some sort of talking Sesame Street muppet. I may even have gotten it for her. I think that Elmo went rogue and started to monologue – or, worse, laugh - in the middle of the night at one point, waking everyone up. But TM Elmo only had to say what he had to say.

Hello Barbie is all AI’d up. Think Siri. Think Cortana.

Ask and you shall receive. Tell and you’ll get some sort of answer. Call and you’ll get a response.

Is it just me, or isn’t it better if kids get to use their imaginations, and improve their verbal skills, by controlling both sides of the conversation? Or am I just an old fogey who doesn’t think that technology necessarily improves everything it touches.

Mattel had experimented with a talking Barbie a while back. Remember the Barbie who said that “Math class is tough.” (Maybe so, but couldn’t she have said “I really like math” instead?)

There are so many concerns that Hello Barbie raises.

Barbie, as we know, influences little girls about gender roles (“Math class is tough.”) and body image (if you’re not 7 feet tall with an 18 inch waist, and walk on your tippy toes, there’s something wrong with you). How will Hello Barbie respond if your little girl says “I can’t do math” will “she” say, “Sure you can” or “Neither can I”?

Then there’s the question about whether small children will be able to distinguish what’s real and what’s not real. Sure, little kids already invest their toys with human attributes, but will this send some of them over the reality edge?

Will kids who talk to smarty pants Hello Barbie get bored with their human friends, who aren’t quite up to Barbie-level snappy repartee? Will they still want real friends?

And my biggest concern about what having pre-programmed dolls hurt the development of creativity and imagination.

It’s not just Barbie, of course. So many toys come with story lines these days. Even those purpose-built Lego kits are more like puzzles than a tabula rasa inviting kids to knock themselves out and let the number of Lego pieces they have be the only limit to what they can build.

Sigh… At least adding all this technology has put a bit of meat on Barbie’s plastic bones. Her thighs have thickened a bit, so she’s a bit more normal in terms of her proportions.

Anyway, the bottom line is Mattel’s bottom line. Barbie revenues have fallen off in the last few years. Hello Barbie is supposed to take care of that.

Maybe they should ask her whether she thinks she’ll be a success.


There’s an interesting article in The New York Times on Hello Barbie. It gets into the technology and the process that was used to fill Barbie’s bubble brain with personality and intelligence.

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