Barbie has undergone many permutations over the years. The loveable, or hateable depending on your opinion, fashion doll that arrived on the scene in 1959 has never settled for anything less than an exciting and dynamic existence. Now, Barbie is reintroducing herself yet again — as a robot. Not really, but Mattel is turning Barbie into an artificially intelligent being with Hello Barbie, the first honestly disturbing iteration of the classic toy.
Interacting with this new doll will be like using Siri on your iPhone. You can press a button in her belt buckle to activate a microphone, which records and sends messages over WiFi to ToyTalk, a company that specializes in artificial intelligence and is partnering with Mattel for this project. While some might applaud this decision, we do not, and not just because we don’t want a doll that might go Chucky lurking around the house.
The World Doesn’t Need Another Loud, Talking Toy
Rich: Every toy, every card, and every everything my mother-in-law gives to my kids makes noise. I’ve told her that if she ever ends up in a nursing home, I’m putting all those things in her room and bribing the nurses to make sure they go off constantly. Constantly. She thinks I’m joking. I am not.
Alas, it’s not just her, even if she is the biggest offender. Almost everyone other than my wife and I loves things that undulate, sing, talk, and otherwise create a cacophony in our house. Failing that, they give long, sturdy sticks with which the girls can hit each other, at least when they’re not using it to destroy other things around the house. At this point, those sticks are actually preferable.
One gift my girls have never received, though, is a Barbie. Not for ideological reasons, mind you, but because other dolls and toys have always superseded the Barbie cravings, plus the fact that Barbie was a quiet. Was being the operative word here. With the introduction of Transhumanist Barbie and the grandparents’ aforementioned predilections, I suspect that Hello Barbie may soon darken our doorstep.
Barbie Goes Hal 9000
Mattel, not content to leave things well enough alone and just let Barbie be the most fantastic and fashionable model/doctor/lawyer/astronaut/mermaid/accountant she can be, had to go there. They had to add another talking toy to the soon-to-be-weaponized pile my demon spawn live in. And not just any talking toy, but one with artificial intelligence. Because when kids pose hypothetical questions to Barbie or make statements about her outfit, they need a quasi-sentient response. What could go wrong?
Well, lots. There’s no reason to detail each and every example of how a kid in all her language-abusing glory could confuse a computer program and get some bad advice. Beyond that, if kids want a talking Barbie, they’ve got “Life in the Dreamhouse,” an honestly entertaining and agenda-free show where Barbie is sort of real if not as spectacular as she was in her heyday. As a father, I’d much prefer that talking Barbie to the Stuart Smalley version Mattel seems to be aiming for, particularly as Dreamhouse Barbie doesn’t actually talk to the kids.
Of course, that means that oddly self-aware television Barbie, much like the traditional doll, isn’t “the perfect friend.” Maybe that’s because dolls aren’t supposed to be friends, but vessels for children’s imaginations. Fun little totems for wild and ridiculous things that little ones dream up. Perhaps your kids do need artificial friends — or at least cheap babysitters for the moments when you’re busy having it all and trying to cook a meal after work — and Hello Barbie offers the assistance you need. If so, go for it I guess.
Personally, though, I’d rather distract my kids differently — with horrible movies and lax supervision. I definitely don’t want them taking directions from their dolls. When it comes to dolls, they need to do the directing. I thought that’s what Barbie was all about, though my experience as a young man revolved more around G.I. Joe, skateboards, and destroying things. Maybe Hello Barbie will serve a similar function as Ralph Wiggum’s leprechaun and encourage such destruction, but I can’t chance it.
Artificially Intelligent Barbie Threatens The Imagination Of Kids
Bre: Growing up, I wanted to be just like Barbie. She has it all: a great wardrobe, cool friends, a cute Jeep, and a different career everyday of the week. As a child, whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would answer: a dentist on Monday, a garbage man on Tuesdays, and an astronaut the other days of the week. I figured if Barbie could wear as many hats as she did and keep her hair game on point, so could I.
Though a lot of Barbie’s life comes assigned to her according to what version you buy (veterinarian Barbie comes with a lab coat and plastic dogs and Malibu Barbie comes wearing a swimsuit and holding a beach towel) there are a lot of blank spaces in her storyline that I filled in myself. Barbie was often an orphan when I played with her, or sometimes she was a refugee or a vagabond on the run.
Now Hello Barbie comes pre-programmed with details about her life and background, essentially limiting the number of options for kids at play. Her personality, her likes and dislikes, and even things she can say are assigned to her before you even get a chance to crack open the box. Engaging with a toy that already has finite attributes strips children of the opportunity to use their imaginations while playing with her.
The imagination is like a muscle, it has to be flexed and exercised in order to be used for good. For children, exploring morality and tackling larger themes in play enables them to better understand the world around them and the role they play within it. It orients the young soul to virtue and empowers them to deploy these virtues in society. Toys are really a vehicle to encourage this type of play. We give children Legos in hopes that they will create, we give them dolls in hopes they learn about love. Artificially intelligent Barbie does nothing to service the imagination that is vitally important in a child’s play.
She Is Proof That Today’s Kids Are More Lonely Than Ever
American families are having fewer and fewer children, parents don’t let kids play outside anymore, and consequently kids are left with no one to talk to or befriend. Hello Barbie is becoming a sad replacement for true friendship.
Whenever I played with her, Barbie had all of her own friends, and I had all of my own real-life friends. The two worlds between pretend and real were never blurred nor did they compete with one another. Giving a child a doll preprogrammed with responses as a companion seems like it would confuse these two realms, not to mention dilute the value of what true friendship is.
A friend isn’t just someone who will respond to your questions or make random statements a company in California is relaying to the doll via WiFi, it is someone who actively initiates spending time with you, and can be relied on. Training our kids to rely on a plastic doll that will eventually run out of batteries or varying responses handicaps them to appreciate real relationships.