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Talking Barbie Says Hello, Parents Say Goodbye

It's not so much Hello Barbie's talking -- it's her listening that has parents up in arms. Here's how Hello Barbie works: A kid presses on the doll's belt buckle and speaks into a microphone in the doll's necklace. An AI system processes and analyzes that speech in the cloud. Responses are then streamed back to the doll, who replies to the kid -- all over a secure WiFi connection to the Internet.

Barbie, who turns 56 this year, finally may get a voice of her own — but opponents are working hard to keep the talking version of the iconic doll out of children’s hands — and homes.

Mattel plans to bring out Hello Barbie in time for Christmas.

However, Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood has organized an online petition calling on Mattel CEO Christopher Sinclair to stop production of the toy.

Here’s how Hello Barbie works: A kid presses on the doll’s belt buckle and speaks into a microphone in the doll’s necklace. An artificial intelligence system processes and analyzes that speech in the cloud. Responses are then streamed back to the doll, who replies to the kid — all over a secure WiFi connection to the Internet.

“Children have a tendency to have particularly intimate conversations with dolls and stuffed animals,” observed Josh Golin, associate director of CCFC.

“They confide in them and reveal things about themselves in a way that kids are much less likely to do if playing with an app,” he told TechNewsWorld. Hello Barbie “will be eavesdropping on children’s personal and private conversations more so than with talking apps.”

Hello Mother, Hello Father

Many parents agree with CCFC — the petition has drawn more than 5,400 signatures since it was posted online a week ago, surpassing its modest 2,000-signature goal.

“We expect to garner far more,” Golin said. “We believe that the backlash against Mattel will only continue to grow, and that they will recognize that Hello Barbie will do their brand far more harm than good.”

Mattel did not respond to our request to comment for this story.

What Powers Hello Barbie

Hello Barbie will use technology from San Francisco-based startup ToyTalk, which is also behind the Winston Show — a kids’ iPad game app that interacts with players — and the SpeakaLegend mobile iOS app.

ToyTalk uses Amazon’s S3 platform.

The company’s AI and speech technology are written in C++ with iOS and Android clients built on top.Its desktop authoring software is written in Python and PyQt. The server code is written in Go, and ToyTalk provides a RESTful Web API to build Web-based conversational clients.

Why All the Angst

ToyTalk’s privacy policy is what has people stirred up.

Essentially, it says that using any of the company’s services constitutes giving ToyTalk permission to collect, use and disclose personal information. Further, those who let others (say, children) use their account to access the service confirm they have the right to consent on their behalf to ToyTalk’s collection, use and disclosure of their personal information.

ToyTalk’s policy also lets it collect audio, photographs and videos, as well as demographic and personal information provided to it. The picture capture feature may be turned off, however.

ToyTalk also uses cookies to harvest information.

Blocking the cookies, or not providing information deemed necessary on signing up, may restrict a user’s access to some parts of the service.

ToyTalk may use, transcribe and store collected recordings to provide and maintain the service, as well as to develop, test or improve speech recognition technology and AI algorithms, and for other R&D or internal purposes.

Save the Children!

ToyTalk’s data collection and use is not very different from what online sites do, really, except that the users are kids.

“There’s greater sensitivity where kids are involved,” said Susan Schreiner, senior editor and analyst at C4 Trends.

However, “We’re going to be seeing more of this … and the challenge is going to be developing some sort of standards in relation to privacy,” she told TechNewsWorld.

The Attempted Reinvention of Retail

Like many old, established names in retail, Mattel is trying to reinvent itself in an always-connected world.

“It may well be that they’re taking a look at their properties and figuring how to make them relevant in the 21st Century,” Schreiner said. The market “is more dynamic than it ever was in terms of what people want, how they will buy, and establishing a connection with the customer.”

The focus now is customer engagement, she remarked, “so you’re seeing different experiments at retail.”

Hello Barbie is just one, with more likely to come.

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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