Few toys produced as much controversy last month as the new Hello Barbie from Mattel, released just a few months ago for the Christmas buying season. Since I’m a tech person and a dad, I pay close attention to the intersection of technology and play, both in my own life and for children. And the hullabaloo over Hello Barbie is really fascinating to watch as it comes more from fear and distrust of tech than from any factual data. Frankly, the concerns people have about the device are the concerns they should have about far more critical elements of their smart homes, not a benign doll.
Hello Barbie is another entry in the long parade of smart Web-enabled devices that are now known by the buzzphrase “Internet of Things” (or IoT). It’s the same as a thermostat you can adjust from your smartphone, a home security camera that records data to the cloud, and a network-enabled padlock that allows remote unlocking.
The concept of Hello Barbie also isn’t new, it’s just a logical stepping stone from a talking teddy bear that was released a decade ago called Teddy Ruxpin. Further, there are other voice-based devices that are becoming commonplace in the home too, notably the slick and popular Amazon Echo. We have one and it’s our best source for news, weather and music. Better yet, it’s always ready to go!
But back to Barbie. Put aside your concerns about the physiognomy of the doll for a moment and consider that it’s really just Apple’s Siri, Google’s Google Now or Microsoft’s Cortana in a child-friendly package. But it’s safer than that: Hello Barbie doesn’t process audio input and respond unless her owner pushes the “talk” button (disguised as her belt buckle).
Yes the device records your child’s voice, but that’s how all voice interface systems work. They don’t monitor your child’s world, they’re not always listening, the data’s not being squirreled away on some NSA server somewhere. Not only that, the data is encrypted within Barbie’s little digital noggin’ before it’s sent up to the ToyTalk servers for analysis and response.
Hello Barbie isn’t that smart either — sorry, Barbs! — and has a limited set of about 8,000 responses [PDF] that are played back after what the child says is matched, analyzed and interpreted. Basically banal phrases like “I love all my animals – they’re definitely part of my family”, “Great, let’s sing a song!” and “I was just picturing you with this super amazing career! Wouldn’t that be cool?”
And Barbie has a profile: she’s 17, was born on March 9th in Wisconsin, and has graduated high school and now lives in Malibu. She has three sisters too, Chelsea, Stacie and Skipper, but no brothers.
The real issue is that as we keep adding smarter tech to our homes and give our children more sophisticated devices (how many tweens do you know that don’t have a smartphone or tablet of their own?) we’re going to also need to really increase the security of our home and office networks. It’s not so easy to hack into a Hello Barbie, but as our lives become more pervasively connected, those hubs are going to become juicy and engaging targets of opportunity.
So Hello Barbie? A really interesting addition to the Internet of Things (with her three skin tone options), but it’s not Barbs I’m worried about. She’s doing fine in Malibu. It’s the rest of your home that’s the real danger.