Kids (and fun-loving adults!) no longer have to fantasize about toys coming alive. The reality of talking toys is upon us and Mattel’s Barbie is one of the first brands to embrace the trend with Hello Barbie, the world’s first talking Barbie doll. The doll was created in collaboration with the conversational AI platform, PullString, which allows non-technical writing teams to program sophisticated conversational capabilities for character-driven chatbots.
Not only can Barbie hold a real conversation with you, she actually gets to know you by remember details from previous talks. ‘‘We are trying to build her personality from scratch into the perfect friend,’’ dramatic writer Sarah Wulfeck from PullString explains. Hello Barbie remembers your favorite color and what you want to be when you grow up. She features close to 8,000 lines of content and can have conversations between 20–100 volleys deep. To make the experience truly epic, all of Barbie’s lines are written by experienced Hollywood screenwriters and recorded by professional voice actors.
Designing a toy to keep up with children’s vivid imaginations is no small feat. One strategy the writing team employed was to have Barbie control the conversation. One example is to start a game show where the child is asked to give funny awards, such as the “Always Eats the Last One Award” for that one family member who always reaches for the last french fry. Another strategy to have a huge database of possible answers to questions such as what music a kid likes. Barbie is equipped with over 200 possible responses regarding music, including an exclamation that Taylor Swift is “one of my super favorites right now!”. Finally, Barbie employs simple fallbacks like “Really? No Way!” in case she doesn’t understand what a child says.
Barbie’s conversational memory is amazing, but also creepy. With children’s toys, safety is paramount. Mothers have brought a class-action lawsuit against Mattel, saying that the conversations their children have with Hello Barbie are sent back to servers for analysis, representing a massive invasion of privacy. While parents are notified when they activate Hello Barbie that children’s responses are being recorded, the legal contracts don’t cover the accidental recordings of other playmates whose voices might be unwittingly captured.
Another concern is the role model Barbie plays for young girls. The brand has historically caused trouble for promoting unhealthy and unrealistic body shapes and underwent a long-awaited revision in early 2016. Barbie has also been criticized with offering dolls with gender-normative jobs and botching attempts to spread to STEM careers. With conversation, influence can be more subtle and pernicious. How should Barbie respond if a girl tells her she’s not doing well in math class? Or if she’s suffering from bullying? Or asks Barbie if she believes in God?
The writing team behind Hello Barbie carefully weighs answers to avoid the type of scandals that have rocked Mattel’s brand in the past. For example, if a girl asks Barbie if she is pretty, Barbie will respond with the politically correct comment of “Of course you’re pretty, but you know what else you are? You’re smart, talented and funny.’’ Julia Pistor, a Vice President at Mattel, emphasizes that Hello Barbie lets young girls know that “You don’t have to be perfect. It is O.K. to be messy and flawed and silly.”
Navigating the complexities, ethics, security, and influence of toying talks will be a continual challenge as artificial intelligence capabilities evolve to give physical objects the illusion of sentience. Mattel and Pullstring’s combined foray into the space only represents the beginning of what is possible.
We review the Hello Barbie doll and discuss the challenges of designing conversational toys in the video below:
Do you own a Hello Barbie doll? How have your kids reacted to the talking toy? We’ve love to hear your comments below.