Bioethics Blogs

Hello Barbie: Considering Potential Unforeseen Problems with A.I. Dolls and What Children Tell Them

by Amanda Zink, J.D., M.A.

Hello Barbie, a doll with artificial intelligence (AI) that enables it to “talk” with children, is slated for release this November, just in time for the holiday season.

When a child activates a microphone inside Hello Barbie’s necklace, her words will be recorded and transmitted to computer servers. Speech recognition software will convert the audio message to analyzable text, enabling the “correct” response to be chosen out of thousands of pre-scripted lines.

Given recent articles on this toy in the popular press, I pose the question: Has Mattel taken enough time to think through the problems that could ensue from giving thousands of children a talking friend and uploading their conversations to the Cloud – for the manufacturers, the children’s parents, and maybe even the NSA to hear?

Federal law requires parental consent prior to collection of any data from products used by children under 13. Thus, when Hello Barbie is synced with the required iPhone/Android app, parents must e-sign a consent form explaining how collected data will be used. Parents are then offered a weekly email with links to their child’s audio sessions, which they can listen to and delete from the company’s servers at any time. Hello Barbie has many advocacy groups up in arms, with much of the focus on improper marketing potential and parental spying. The terms of service state simply that recordings “may be used for research and development purposes” such as improving technology and refining the underlying algorithms”.

A recent New York Times article, “Artificially Yours,” describes various challenges the development team has faced, including there being “no doubt [a child using the doll] will ask Barbie all manner of those intimate questions that she wouldn’t ask an adult.” What are the ethical answers to these potentially touchy questions?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.