Soulless machines raising children: Hello Barbie is the first conversational A.I. children’s toy

Advances in artificial intelligence (A.I) are spreading to unsuspecting places in the market place, including your child’s beloved barbie doll. A team of researchers working with ToyTalk are transforming barbie from a plastic toy to a friend that can carry on conversations, both big and small.

The A.I. barbie, known as Hello Barbie, is expected to be released in November by Mattel just in time for the holidays. The doll in installed with voice recognition software which enables it to not just regurgitate cheap sound bites, but actually hold a meaningful dialogue with children.(1)

For example, if the doll is asked by a child is she believes in God, Hello Barbie may respond, “‘I think a person’s beliefs are very personal to them,’’ according to a New York Times article. If a child complains to Hello Barbie about their physical appearance, the doll may reassure the child by stating, “Of course you’re pretty, but you’re also smart, funny and talented.”(2)

Petition Launched Against Hello Barbie

Many fear that Hello Barbie goes too far. In particular, some people are concerned that children will fail to distinguish Hello Barbie from a real person. Children may be as morally attached to the barbie doll as they are socially.

In addition, children may compensate real relationships for an artificial one with Hello Barbie. This could prevent children from cultivating social skills at an early age.

These concerns provoked the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC) to launch a petition to issue a ban on Hello Barbie. Although the petition accumulated nearly 5,000 signatures, Hello Barbie is still expected to be released later this year.

There are other concerns Hello Barbie provokes. Not only will Hello Barbie collect and store data from the conversations, but it will also upload this information into the Cloud. This allows Hello Barbie to learn and better engage with the child over time.

In an attempt to mitigate these concerns, Mattel claims that the data collected from the conversations will not be used for marketing purposes. Nevertheless, the public is not reassured. As a device linked to the Cloud, Hello Barbie is vulnerable to hacks.(1)

Hello Barbie: Friend or Foe?

On the other side of the coin, supporters of Hello Barbie argue that the doll can aid in the development of speech, in the same way an imaginary friend can help a child engage in conversation. Furthermore, Hello Barbie may help boost a child’s confidence by providing positive feedback. In fact, Hello Barbie could even play an integral role in treating mental disorders and social anxiety.(2)

Nevertheless, critics note that Hello Barbie is not an adequate substitute for real life interactions. Unlike people, Hello Barbie has a hallow, static self that does not evolve with time. Yet people really do change, whether it be in their physical appearance, interests or priorities. By contrast, Hello Barbie’s personality is constrained, and does not help children mature with age.(2)

Hello Barbie dilutes the value of relationships in other ways as well. For example, the child would always be on the receiving end of Hello Barbie: the speaker makes all the demands and receives all the rewards from the doll, but does nothing in return. These aren’t the characteristics that solidify a meaningful relationship in the real world. On the other hand, it may be just as worrisome to program robots which demand the same moral consideration as their creators.(2)

The crux of the debate is weather we want to say hello or goodbye to Hello Barbie.

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