Hello Barbie: AI Innovation OR Creepy Toy Future
When artificial intelligence is everywhere, all the time
by Computerworld - Mike Elgan By Mike Elgan Sep 21, 2015
Hello Barbie enables children to chat with an artificial intelligence program in a remote data center.
Siri and virtual assistants like her will soon change everything. I. Mean. Everything.
It's easy to dismiss virtual assistants as parlor tricks, irrelevant gimmicks or even fatally flawed.
... And the next place where A.I. shows up is in a dollhouse.
I'm dreaming of an A.I. Christmas
Mattel is set to release in two months a version of Barbie that enables children to speak through the doll to a vast and sophisticated artificial intelligence engine.
The $74.99 Hello Barbie doll has a battery in each leg and a mini-USB charging port on her lower back. Her necklace contains a microphone and her belt buckle contains a button that, when pressed, activates the microphone. Inside Hello Barbie's torso is a mini computer and Wi-Fi antenna.
When a child talks to Hello Barbie, the doll acts like an iPhone, recording, compressing and transmitting the sound file to a remote server (which is housed in a data center owned by a company called ToyTalk). The speech is analyzed, a response selected, then the instruction to say that response in Hello Barbie's voice is transmitted over the Internet, the home's Wi-Fi and to the doll.
Hello Barbie is like Siri, except the voice is Barbie's, and the responses were all written by Mattel.
When news about Hello Barbie first emerged, the public was shocked. Alarmist headlines talked about a "creepy" and "eavesdropping" presence in children's lives. Think of the children!
In reality, this is the interface today's children will never, ever be without.
And kids don't need Barbie to introduce them to A.I. virtual assistants and chatbots. Mom and Dad's phones have voice-interaction Siri, Google Now, Cortana or something else. The TV has or will soon have voice-interaction A.I. The family car will have it (as Apple's CarPlay and Google's Android Auto take over or lead the market for how people interact with their cars' dashboards). The family PC has it in the browser, or as a fundamental aspect of the operating system. The game console probably has it, too.
For children young enough to play with a Barbie, A.I. will always be an ever-present, ubiquitous banality -- just something that exists in the world like TV or Facebook.
READ FULL STORY by Computerworld HERE
Barbie Wants to Get to Know Your Child
By The New York Times JAMES VLAHOSSEPT. 16, 2015
It looked like a child’s playroom: toys in cubbies, a little desk for doing homework, a whimsical painting of a tree on the wall. A woman and a girl entered and sat down in plump papasan chairs, facing a low table that was partly covered by a pink tarp. The wall opposite them was mirrored from floor to ceiling, and behind it, unseen in a darkened room, a half-dozen employees of the toy company Mattel sat watching through one-way glass. The girl, who looked about 7, wore a turquoise sweatshirt and had her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. The woman, a Mattel child-testing specialist named Lindsey Lawson, had sleek dark hair and the singsong voice of a kindergarten teacher. Microphones hidden in the room transmitted what Lawson said next. ‘‘You are going to have a chance to play with a brand-new toy,’’ she told the girl, who leaned forward with her hands on her knees. Removing the pink tarp, Lawson revealed Hello Barbie.
‘‘Yay, you’re here!’’ Barbie said eagerly. ‘‘This is so exciting. What’s your name?’’
‘‘Ariana,’’ the girl said.
‘‘Fantastic,’’ Barbie said. ‘‘I just know we’re going to be great friends.’’
Their exchange was the fulfillment of an ancient dream: Since there have been toys, we have wanted them to speak to us. Inventors in the mid-1800s, deploying bellows in place of human lungs and reeds to simulate vocal cords, managed to get dolls to say short words like ‘‘papa.’’ Thomas Edison’s first idea for commercializing his new phonograph invention was ‘‘to make Dolls speak sing cry,’’ as he wrote in a notebook entry in 1877. In the 20th century, toy makers scored with products like Dolly Rekord, who spoke nursery rhymes in the 1920s; Chatty Cathy, a 1959 release from Mattel whose 11 phrases included ‘‘I love you’’; and Teddy Ruxpin, a mid-1980s stuffed bear whose mouth and eyes moved as he told stories. Even Barbie gained her voice in 1968 with a pull string that activated eight short phrases.
All that doll talk has always been a kind of party trick, executed with hidden record players, cassette tapes or digital chips. But in the past five years, breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and speech recognition have given the devices around us — smartphones, computers, cars — the ability to engage in something approaching conversation, by listening to users and generating intelligent responses to their queries. Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana are still far from the science-fiction promise of Samantha from the movie ‘‘Her.’’ But as conversational technology improves, it may one day rival keyboards and touch screens as our primary means of communicating with computers — according to Apple, Siri already handles more than a billion spoken requests per week. With such technology widely available, it was inevitable that artificial intelligence for children would arrive, too, and it is doing so most prominently in the pink, perky form of Mattel’s Hello Barbie. Produced in collaboration with ToyTalk, a San Francisco-based company specializing in artificial intelligence, the doll is scheduled to be released in November with the intention of hitting the lucrative $6 billion holiday toy market.
For adults, this new wave of everyday A.I. is nowhere near sophisticated enough to fool us into seeing machines as fully alive. That is, they do not come close to passing the ‘‘Turing test,’’ the threshold proposed in 1950 by the British computer scientist Alan Turing, who pointed out that imitating human intelligence well enough to fool a human interlocutor was as good a definition of ‘‘intelligence’’ as any. But things are different with children, because children are different. Especially with the very young, ‘‘it is very hard for them to distinguish what is real from what is not real,’’ says Doris Bergen, a professor of educational psychology at Miami University in Ohio who studies play. The penchant to anthropomorphize — to believe that inanimate objects are to some degree humanlike and alive — is in no way restricted to the young, but children, who often favor magical thinking over the mundane rules of reality, have an especially rich capacity to believe in the unreal.
Hello Barbie is by far the most advanced to date in a new generation of A.I. toys whose makers share the aspiration of Geppetto: to persuade children that their toys are alive — or, at any rate, are something more than inanimate. At Ariana’s product-testing session, which took place in May at Mattel’s Imagination Center in El Segundo, Calif., near Los Angeles, Barbie asked her whether she would like to do randomly selected jobs, like being a scuba instructor or a hot-air-balloon pilot. Then they played a goofy chef game, in which Ariana told a mixed-up Barbie which ingredients went with which recipes — pepperoni with the pizza, marshmallows with the s’mores. ‘‘It’s really fun to cook with you,’’ Ariana said.
At one point, Barbie’s voice got serious. ‘‘I was wondering if I could get your advice on something,’’ Barbie asked. The doll explained that she and her friend Teresa had argued and weren’t speaking. ‘‘I really miss her, but I don’t know what to say to her now,’’ Barbie said. ‘‘What should I do?’’
‘‘Say ‘I’m sorry,’ ’’ Ariana replied.
‘‘You’re right. I should apologize,’’ Barbie said. ‘‘I’m not mad anymore. I just want to be friends again.’’
This summer, when I visited Mattel’s sprawling campus in El Segundo, a prototype of Hello Barbie stood in the middle of a glass-topped conference table, her blond tresses parted on the right and cascading down to her left shoulder. She looked like your basic Barbie, but Aslan Appleman, a lead product designer, explained that her thighs had been thickened slightly to fit a rechargeable battery in each one; a mini-USB charging port was tucked into the small of her back.
A microphone, concealed inside Barbie’s necklace, could be activated only when a user pushed and held down her belt buckle. Each time, whatever someone said to Barbie would be recorded and transmitted via Wi-Fi to the computer servers of ToyTalk. Speech-recognition software would then convert the audio signal into a text file, which would be analyzed. The correct response would be chosen from thousands of lines scripted by ToyTalk and Mattel writers and pushed to Hello Barbie for playback — all in less than a second.
‘‘Barbie, what is your full name?’’ Appleman asked the doll as I watched.
‘‘Oh, I thought you knew,’’ Barbie replied. ‘‘My full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts.’’
Ever since Barbie introduced herself to the world, she has stood at the uneasy center of questions about the influence of dolls on children. Unveiled at the New York Toy Fair in 1959, she quickly became both a cultural flash point — attacked by the pioneering feminist Betty Friedan and depicted by Andy Warhol — and one of the top-selling toys of all time, with more than a billion dolls purchased. Her stiltlike legs, tiny waist and enormous breasts set her apart from the childish dolls that had reigned until that time; in the 1950s, before Barbie was even released, a mother complained to Mattel that the doll had ‘‘too much of a figure.’’ Her appearance has remained controversial. Protesters at the 1972 Toy Fair complained that Barbie and other dolls encouraged girls ‘‘to see themselves solely as mannequins, sex objects or housekeepers,’’ according to an account in The New York Times.
When children reach preschool, they begin to avidly collect information about gender roles — what distinguishes girls from boys, and what each gender is supposed to say and do, says May Ling Halim, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach, who studies gender identity. Barbie and other dolls are hardly the only influences on this process, but they may be a significant source of gender information. A 2006 study in the journal Developmental Psychology bluntly concluded that ‘‘girls exposed to Barbie reported lower body esteem and greater desire for a thinner body shape.’’
Giving Barbie a voice only increases her potential impact. ‘‘The messages that she says could influence how kids define being a girl,’’ Halim says. An earlier version of the doll with a much more limited ability to speak — Teen Talk Barbie, released in 1992 — enraged critics with the utterance, ‘‘Math class is tough.’’ The American Association of University Women called on Mattel to recall the doll, and the company, apologizing, deleted the offending line from the computer chip.
Read More HERE
Hello Barbie Is Really Creepy
By My Tech Bits -- Charles Farwell - September 19, 2015
Artificially intelligent Barbie does nothing to service the imagination that is vitally important in a child’s play.
When someone says “Hi, Barbie“, she responds back.
In the past five years, breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and speech recognition have given the devices around us – smartphones, computers, cars – the ability to engage in something approaching conversation…With such technology widely available, it was inevitable that artificial intelligence for children would arrive, too, and it is doing so most prominently in the pink, perky form of Mattel’s Hello Barbie.
Growing up, thousands of girls wanted to be just like Barbie.
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.
Mattel’s brand is honoring Zendaya at the Barbie Rock ‘N Royals Concert Experience on September 26 in Hollywood, all for encouraging girls to “raise their voices” and speak up when they feel passionately about an issue.
“If I had a young child, I would be very concerned that my child’s intimate conversations with her doll were being recorded and analysed”, Angela Campbell, from Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology, said at the time.
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. “This information could be of great value to advertisers and be used to market unfairly to children”.
In a New York Times piece on the doll’s development, it was revealed that the new Barbie has almost 200 possible responses to artists that your child might like.
“Connected toys, robotics and AI is really where the industry is heading I feel”, Michael Yanofsky, from WowWee, told IBTimes United Kingdom at the annual London Toy Fair earlier this year. “For us the AI can enable us to do so many things”.
Read More HERE
This Year’s Must-Have Kid’s Christmas Present is The Creepiest Thing Yet
by RiseFeed - September 21, 2015 Emily Ray
With fewer than 100 days until Christmas, it’s pretty much time for kids the world over to start writing their lists to Santa, right? Good job the new Hello Barbie doll looks set to be released just in time for the festive season.
Except for one thing: this new Barbie might not be exactly what you want your kids, cousins, grandchildren or siblings to be playing with. Because this latest incarnation is honestly pretty disturbing. Think Chucky the doll-disturbing, but with more sparkles.
Hello Barbie is our worst nightmare
Dressing up the unrealistically-shaped dolls in glamorous outfits is sooo 2014. This year the focus is on creepy, high-tech dolls which can actually interact with kids. Created by San Francisco startup ToyTalk, the Hello Barbie doll has received more than $31million in funding from various donors. These donors have obviously never seen Child’s Play.
Could Hello Barbie be the new Chucky doll?
Pressing a button on the Barbie’s belt buckle causes the doll to ‘wake up’, connect to Wi-Fi and ask the user a question. The kid’s reply is recorded, encoded, and sent to the ToyTalk’s servers in an encrypted form. So far, pretty creepy; but then it gets worse. The audio is processed by voice-recognition software, allowing the systems to work out what was said, and then how best to reply.
Put simply, the new Barbie is built to become a kid’s new best mate – because human interaction is so overrated, right? And just to freak you out even more, everything that is recorded is kept on the ToyTalk computers to help improve future scripted replies; so you’d better watch what you’re saying when you’ve got a kid nearby playing with the doll…
Those parents who still think the Hello Barbie is a good idea will be pleased to hear that the doll will send them weekly or daily emails with highlights of what their kids have been saying. Temper tantrums, gossip and thoughts on parents – the whole works.
While the doll is currently still in the prototype stage, it’s hoped to be ready just in time for Christmas, retailing at a smidge over £48.
Read More HERE
Stop Mattel’s "Hello Barbie" Eavesdropping Doll
Campaign for Commerce-free Childhood
Imagine your children playing with a Wi-Fi-connected doll that records their conversations--and then transmits them to a corporation which analyzes every word to learn "all of [the child's] likes and dislikes." That’s exactly what Mattel’s eavesdropping “Hello Barbie” will do if it is released this fall, as planned. But we can stop it!
Kids using "Hello Barbie"' won't only be talking to a doll, they'll be talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial. It's creepy—and creates a host of dangers for children and families.
Children naturally reveal a lot about themselves when they play. In Mattel’s demo, Barbie asks many questions that encourage kids to share information about their interests, their families, and more—information advertisers can use to market unfairly to children.
Please tell Mattel CEO Christopher Sinclair to stop "Hello Barbie" immediately.
To learn more, please visit http://www.commercialfreechildhood.org/action/shut-down-hello-barbie. (An additional 36,000 people have signed this same petition at Change.org)
Dear Mr. Sinclair,
We call on you to stop production of "Hello Barbie" because it is a significant violation of children’s privacy. It records and transmits a child's speech to computers for analysis to reveal "all of [the child's] likes and dislikes." The doll’s subsequent communications to the child are modified based on the data collected.
As a father yourself, we trust you understand the fundamental dangers. Children naturally confide in their dolls, and reveal a great deal about themselves when they play. It is wrong for Mattel and your technology partner ToyTalk to record, transmit, and analyze these intimate conversations (and others within range of "Hello Barbie" microphones) for use—or misuse—by Mattel, ToyTalk, or any entity that might intercept or access the data captured by the doll and/or your computers.
In addition, “Hello Barbie" undermines creative play by insuring that Mattel—not the child—will be driving the play and relationship. In fact, Mattel claims the toy will "deepen that relationship girls have with [Barbie]." The goal is for the child and "Hello Barbie" to "become the best of friends." As I'm sure you know, healthy cognitive, social, and emotional development requires relationships with real friends—not artificially generated corporate messages created after listening in on anyone within range of Mattel's microphones.
Please show your leadership and concern for the health and safety of children and families by immediately ending all marketing and production of "Hello Barbie."
Image by AP Photo/Mark Lennihan