SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Barbie is about to talk back. She's talked before with a pull-string in her back, so she could utter a phrase or two, like, let's have a pizza party. But Mattel's about to roll out Hello Barbie, who has a mic in her waist that connects to a server in a cloud. A company called Toy Talk will analyze whatever a child tells Barbie, play one of about 8,000 replies that'll be recorded and updated to stay current. Program Hello Barbie to say, Donald Trump, Chicago Cubs and, according to polls and she could do my job.
Reporters who've spent time with Barbie report she sounds well-programmed and conversational. But a lot of people are alarmed by what she will hear. This is really about Mattel eavesdropping on a child's heart and soul and the most intimate things about their lives, says Susan Linn, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.
Who wants to worry that the Barbie they tuck next to a child with spill their most intimate thoughts to marketers, government agencies or hackers. Or that Mattel will use the information Barbie coaxes from the mouths of babes to say, so you like unicorns? Tell your parents to buy our great, new Razzle Dazzle Unicorn doll. Could Russian hackers tap a cloud to make a million Hello Barbies proclaim Vladimir Putin sure is cool, isn't he? I'm dismayed that this new Barbie talks at all.
Children, not corporations, should make dolls talk. Boys and girls should use their imaginations to make dolls say things that are silly, funny or bawdy and not engineered by professionals. It's so delightful to overhear the babble of children as they give voice to dolls and stuffed animals. We tell things to dolls because they can't talk back. We imagine what they might tell us. But I don't see much fun or play in children sitting at Barbie's tiny vinyl feet to ask questions and wait for answers, as if Barbie were Buddha. Children have a talent for creative destruction.
I like to think a lot of children may get a new Hello Barbie and be excited to talk with her, but their little brothers and crazy uncles will say rude things just to hear how she replies. Kids will plunge Barbie into the bathtub just to see if she makes bubbles when she talks underwater. And after a few rough days of tests and trials, Hello Barbie will break down. Parents will vow to repair her but never quite figure out how, and Hello Barbie will fall silent. Then, the children can begin to really play.
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