A talking Barbie sounds cute until you find out she's a capitalist spy
"Talk to me," is something that the new Barbie doll might say. Sounds entertaining, but as with all talking machines it's not unreasonable to be suspicious of an ulterior motive. No-one really buys dolls anymore, 'cause iPads, so in a bid to arrest the alarming decline in doll sales, Mattel has added voice recognition software to its latest Wi-Fi connected doll, "Hello Barbie".
Nothing wrong with a company using the latest technology in the name of entertainment, one may think, but privacy groups want the doll shelved. "Hello Barbie" works like this. When you press a button on the doll, it triggers a microphone inside the doll that then "listens" to whoever is talking to it. The speech is recorded and sent to a server where speech is processed, helping to form Barbie's responses, which change over time as she "learns".
This offers up the slightly disturbing image of a child talking to a doll, that is in reality just a sounding board for a multi-million pound toy company that can then potentially use the information to target ads at kids via the doll. Don't leave your offspring alone with this thing.
Speaking to the Washington Post, the group director of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, Susan Linn said, "Kids using 'Hello Barbie' aren't only talking to a doll, they are talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial. It's creepy – and creates a host of dangers for children and families."
The problem really is one of intimacy. I said shit to my teddy I don't want anyone to hear, so the idea of kids' conversations being recorded and analysed ranks pretty highly on the creep chart. Toy Talk is the company that worked with Mattel to create the doll and specifically, the voice-recognition software.
The company admits that when the doll launches, parents will have to sign into an app and consent to the kids' voices being recorded, which ultimately no-one in the world will do.
It's by no means the first case of companies coming under fire for covertly engaging in a niche form of surveillance. Samsung came under fire when it was discovered that buried inside its T&Cs for its new smart TV was an interesting disclaimer: "Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party."
This week, Hacker News published a Reddit post from a user called FallenMyth, who claimed to have started a new job at a company where she says it's her job to analyse things said to Siri. "I heard everything from kiddos asking innocent things like 'Siri, do you like me?' to some guy asking Galaxy to lick his butthole. I wish I was kidding," she wrote. We reached out to Apple for comment yesterday, but didn't hear back.
Guys, the machines are here and they mean business, literally.
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