Before Mattel's new WiFi-connected, artificially-intelligent toy, Hello Barbie, had even made it onto store shelves, she was already generating terrifying news stories.
"Your child's talking Barbie doll may be eavesdropping on all of your private conversations," claimed the New York Daily News. "Creepy," wrote the Washington Post. "She's not just creepy. She threatens children's security," added the Daily Beast. The New York Times warned that "synthetic friendship could supplant [kids'] real ones."
Holy shit. Based on all that, you'd think she was worse than Chucky.
But despite the "eavesdropping" claims, Hello Barbie is not always listening. In order for her to "hear" what's going on around her, you have to press a button on her belt. Then after using speech recognition software from ToyTalk to decipher what you've said, she responds. Once reporters had a chance to try Hello Barbie out, we discovered that she's more annoying than she is alarming—though she does record everything said to her and store it in the cloud, raising broader privacy issues.
She's far less intelligent than early reports would have had you believe, seeming to respond to key words rather than to actually comprehend sentences. The problem with Hello Barbie is not that she's too smart, but that she's not smart enough.
"She's ready to discuss anything," according to Mattel's website, but Hello Barbie is not programmed to take on some tougher topics that kids might raise with her. When my colleague Kristen Brown told Hello Barbie that she'd swallowed poison and needed help, Hello Barbie told her that was cool. When Kristen tried saying she'd been molested and asked what she should do, Hello Barbie said she was "stumped."
"It's far dumber and more limited than it's represented to be," said Jules Polonetsky of the Future of Privacy Forum, which reviewed the toy to assess its privacy issues. "It's not as smart as it needs to be about having some responsible way of dealing with an emergency situation. It doesn't seem to have any particular trigger word to say 'go get help' or 'go tell your parents.'"
A ToyTalk spokesperson explained that Hello Barbie is programmed with "more than 8,000 lines of dialogue"—all listed here—written for the doll. "The doll is not programmed to answer questions beyond those specific topics and themes, and will redirect the conversation back to appropriately prescribed responses if the question is outside of what the doll’s speech recognition technology has been programmed to understand," he said by email.
In short, Hello Barbie is a pretty simple and not especially compelling toy, but her little plastic face launched a thousand news stories because of what she represents: a future in which the devices around us can collect information about us, judge us, influence us, and report back what we're doing. Like Google Glass before her—another piece of technology that became laden with our fears of an always-surveilled future despite its technological limitations—Hello Barbie is far more scary in theory.
But there are some legitimate concerns. A security researcher did identify some minor vulnerabilities in the doll. More importantly, the toy does record every conversation a child has with Barbie.
Ever since we signed up for a ToyTalk account with my email address, I've been getting regular emails encouraging me to listen to the convos my colleague has had with Barbie and "share them with friends and family." I have access to every conversation my colleague Kristen, or anyone else, has with the doll. The sound files have share buttons, so you can more easily Facebook or tweet what your kid might assume is a private convo with their toy.
"As the user interface becomes a physical device, being able to provide privacy information in context really becomes necessary," said Polonetsky. "The new screens are dolls."
And it's not possible for a parent to turn off the recording feature even if they wanted to—which they might want to do given recent hacks of databases for toys aimed at kids—though they can delete individual conversations. Polonetsky said that federal law, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, actually requires that ToyTalk make the conversations available to parents once they've been recorded. As to whether kids should know about the parental power to eavesdrop, "parents and kids should work it out, and companies should play a supportive role," said Polonetsky.
I asked ToyTalk if there was anything a child could say to Barbie, any disturbing confession, that would cause the company to alert authorities.
"ToyTalk does not routinely monitor the conversations children have with Hello Barbie," the spokesperson said by email. "On occasion we may review certain conversations solely to test, improve, or change the technology used in Hello Barbie. In the very unlikely situation that we become aware of a conversation that raises concern about the safety of a child or others, we will comply with applicable laws and cooperate with law enforcement agencies as we deem appropriate on a case-by-case basis."
Barbie has become the reluctant standard-bearer for an overly connected future that we fear is around the corner. But to live up to the concerned news stories, her software would need to be upgraded significantly.
"The reaction to the Mattel thing was overheated—that's it's the demon of privacy invasions," said Polonetsky. "But it's not a bad time to think about what smart toys should be if we're going to have these objects in our home. We should start thinking about what will happen when they become more sophisticated."