Sammy Nickalls
September 20, 2015 7:50 am

For many kids all over the world, Barbie was an actual friend. We played with her, put on different outfits, had her hang out with her friends, go on dates with Ken, the whole nine yards. Many of us would give her a voice, making her chat to all her friends. Well, science has now given Barbie a voice. Yeah, Mattel just informed The New York Times that they’ve been collaborating with ToyTalk, a San Francisco-based company that specializes in artificial intelligence, to release the new Hello Barbie in November. . . and yes, she can actually talk to you.

Barbie has had a voice in the past, ever since 1968, thanks to a pull string that activated a few short phrases. But the Hello Barbie goes way beyond that. The doll will be fitted with AI software and WiFi and will be able to recognize speech patterns and come up with responses. And when she hears certain words, she will respond (i.e. when she hears “good” or “fantastic,” she’ll respond “Great, me too!”). She will have over 8,000 prerecorded lines of dialogue, and we’re over here struggling to figure out if that’s our childhood dreams come true or the creepiest thing we’ve ever heard.

As the New York Times points out, the Hello Barbie does not come close to passing the Turing test, the threshold developed by British computer scientist Alan Turing in 1950. In other words, she doesn’t remotely seem like she’s at the level of human intelligence. . . but she may to a young child. “It is very hard for [young children] to distinguish what is real from what is not real,” Doris Bergen, professor of educational psychology at Miami University in Ohio, told New York Times.

In one example cited by the publication, Barbie was able to have serious conversations with a little girl who tested the product. “I was wondering if I could get your advice on something,” Barbie asked, telling the girl that she and her friend Teresa were no longer on speaking terms. “I really miss her, but I don’t know what to say to her now,” Barbie continued. “What should I do?” When the girl told her she should say sorry, Barbie responded, “You’re right. I should apologize. I’m not mad anymore. I just want to be friends again.” WHOAAAA WHAT.

Oh, and on top of this, the Barbie remembers what you say, and she’ll mark it as conversation starters later on. “She should always know that you have two moms and that your grandma died, so don’t bring that up, and that your favorite color is blue, and that you want to be a veterinarian when you grow up,” ToyTalk employee Sarah Wulfeck told New York Times.

Wulfeck and her coworkers also thought of questions that kids may ask her behind closed doors. “I have no doubt [a girl] will ask Barbie all manner of those intimate questions that she wouldn’t ask an adult,” Wulfeck explained to New York Times. If she would tell Barbie she’s getting bullied in school, the doll would respond, “That sounds like something you should talk to a grown-up about.” If she would ask Barbie if she thinks she’s pretty, Barbie would respond, “Of course you’re pretty, but do you know what else you are? You’re smart, talented, and funny.”

An issue that has been raised with the Hello Barbie in the past has to do with privacy. Earlier this year, Mattel came under fire due to controversy that the doll was able to record conversations and transmit them to a ToyTalk server, according to International Business Times. “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 about the Barbie at the time.

However, Mattel has promised that Hello Barbie isn’t an “eavesdropping doll” and will never ask for any personal information. The company has fully disclosed its list of questions and has a hotline for any concerned parents, and parents can share their child’s conversations on social media.

Either way, it’s completely wild to think about how technology is totally reinventing so many aspects of our lives, including childhood playtime. Oh, science. You never fail to blow our minds.

(Image via Mattel.)

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