Hello Barbie…Hello Mila

| October 5, 2015 | 0 Comments

When my four-year old granddaughter, Mila, comes to my house she often gets out her toys for a tea party. She sits down on the floor with all her dishes spread around and her guests seated to form a circle. Invited to this party are her purple unicorn, a baby doll, a monkey in a banana and various Barbie doll hand me downs from when her older cousin stayed over many years ago.

From the other room I listen to the little voices she has for each of them and smile to myself enjoying her imagination. But this holiday season, something new will be available. When she talks to Barbie, Barbie will talk back. No, not a string that she can pull, not a prerecorded device with limited phrases, no nothing like that. Barbie will actually talk back with appropriate responses to the child who owns her. Because Barbie is no longer just a girl with a pink convertible.

Starting very soon, Barbie is our newest form of artificial intelligence. A recent New York Times Magazine reports that the doll, being released this fall, will have a microphone concealed inside her necklace that will be activated only when the user pushes the doll’s belt buckle. Whatever the child says to Barbie will be recorded and transmitted via Wi-Fi to the computer servers of a company called ToyTalk that is partnering with Mattel.

This company uses voice recognition software which analyzes the audio received and within a second, chooses a correct response from thousands of lines. The more the child talks to Hello Barbie, the more specific the responses come back. The information is stored in the cloud, sorted and comes back to the child as a response from Barbie.

So if the child is talking about being ill, the response may be something like, “I’m sorry you are feeling sick Mila, and I hope you get better soon.” Forget Siri, Google Now and Cortana, artificial intelligence has found our kids. Barbie may soon know more about our kids than we do.

The eminent British physicist Stephen Hawking warns that as artificial intelligence gets more sophisticated, we may one day be overtaken by what we have created. That’s a bit too far for most of us to go, but there is little research devoted to these issues and Hawking thinks we are facing potentially the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity.

We see that a computer can beat a human on Jeopardy. We trust our computer assistants to give us correct information. We know, at least I know, that if a pre-teen boy gets hold of Siri and whispers “bad words” to her, she will reply that she “does not appreciate that kind of language.”

But let’s get back to Hello Barbie. Will this Barbie lead to the end of imagination for little kids and their tea parties? Or will this be a method to prepare a shy child to make new friendships because this Barbie is friendly, non-judgmental and always pleasant, giving the child an artificial best friend that will pave the way for making real best friends. The answer remains to be seen. But there is no stopping this stampede.

As more and more devices take on the components of artificial intelligence our children and grandchildren will adapt. They always do. We were warned that television will be the end of family conversations, that the iphone will be the end of eye to eye contact.

It happens and we cannot stop progress. We try to keep things status quo. We ask them to “put down that phone and stop texting.” They don’t listen and we adapt. If you are not happy with that situation, I suggest you ask Hello Barbie what to do. I bet she has the right answer.

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