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Barbie Wants to Get to Know Your Child


With the help of A.I., America’s most famous doll tries to fulfill a timeless dream — convincing little girls that she’s a real friend. What will happen if they believe her?

It looked like a child’s playroom: toys in cubbies, a little desk for doing homework, a whimsical painting of a tree on the wall. A woman and a girl entered and sat down in plump papasan chairs, facing a low table that was partly covered by a pink tarp. The wall opposite them was mirrored from floor to ceiling, and behind it, unseen in a darkened room, a half-dozen employees of the toy company Mattel sat watching through one-way glass. The girl, who looked about 7, wore a turquoise sweatshirt and had her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. The woman, a Mattel child-testing specialist named Lindsey Lawson, had sleek dark hair and the singsong voice of a kindergarten teacher. Microphones hidden in the room transmitted what Lawson said next. ‘‘You are going to have a chance to play with a brand-new toy,’’ she told the girl, who leaned forward with her hands on her knees. Removing the pink tarp, Lawson revealed Hello Barbie.

‘‘Yay, you’re here!’’ Barbie said eagerly. ‘‘This is so exciting. What’s your name?’’

‘‘Ariana,’’ the girl said.

‘‘Fantastic,’’ Barbie said. ‘‘I just know we’re going to be great friends.’’

Their exchange was the fulfillment of an ancient dream: Since there have been toys, we have wanted them to speak to us. Inventors in the mid-1800s, deploying bellows in place of human lungs and reeds to simulate vocal cords, managed to get dolls to say short words like ‘‘papa.’’ Thomas Edison’s first idea for commercializing his new phonograph invention was ‘‘to make Dolls speak sing cry,’’ as he wrote in a notebook entry in 1877. In the 20th century, toy makers scored with products like Dolly Rekord, who spoke nursery rhymes in the 1920s; Chatty Cathy, a 1959 release from Mattel whose 11 phrases included ‘‘I love you’’; and Teddy Ruxpin, a mid-1980s stuffed bear whose mouth and eyes moved as he told stories. Even Barbie gained her voice in 1968 with a pull string that activated eight short phrases.

All that doll talk has always been a kind of party trick, executed with hidden record players, cassette tapes or digital chips. But in the past five years, breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and speech recognition have given the devices around us — smartphones, computers, cars — the ability to engage in something approaching conversation, by listening to users and generating intelligent responses to their queries. Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana are still far from the science-fiction promise of Samantha from the movie ‘‘Her.’’ But as conversational technology improves, it may one day rival keyboards and touch screens as our primary means of communicating with computers — according to Apple, Siri already handles more than a billion spoken requests per week. With such technology widely available, it was inevitable that artificial intelligence for children would arrive, too, and it is doing so most prominently in the pink, perky form of Mattel’s Hello Barbie. Produced in collaboration with ToyTalk, a San Francisco-based company specializing in artificial intelligence, the doll is scheduled to be released in November with the intention of hitting the lucrative $6 billion holiday toy market.

For adults, this new wave of everyday A.I. is nowhere near sophisticated enough to fool us into seeing machines as fully alive. That is, they do not come close to passing the ‘‘Turing test,’’ the threshold proposed in 1950 by the British computer scientist Alan Turing, who pointed out that imitating human intelligence well enough to fool a human interlocutor was as good a definition of ‘‘intelligence’’ as any. But things are different with children, because children are different. Especially with the very young, ‘‘it is very hard for them to distinguish what is real from what is not real,’’ says Doris Bergen, a professor of educational psychology at Miami University in Ohio who studies play. The penchant to anthropomorphize — to believe that inanimate objects are to some degree humanlike and alive — is in no way restricted to the young, but children, who often favor magical thinking over the mundane rules of reality, have an especially rich capacity to believe in the unreal.

Hello Barbie is by far the most advanced to date in a new generation of A.I. toys whose makers share the aspiration of Geppetto: to persuade children that their toys are alive — or, at any rate, are something more than inanimate. At Ariana’s product-testing session, which took place in May at Mattel’s Imagination Center in El Segundo, Calif., near Los Angeles, Barbie asked her whether she would like to do randomly selected jobs, like being a scuba instructor or a hot-air-balloon pilot. Then they played a goofy chef game, in which Ariana told a mixed-up Barbie which ingredients went with which recipes — pepperoni with the pizza, marshmallows with the s’mores. ‘‘It’s really fun to cook with you,’’ Ariana said.

At one point, Barbie’s voice got serious. ‘‘I was wondering if I could get your advice on something,’’ Barbie asked. The doll explained that she and her friend Teresa had argued and weren’t speaking. ‘‘I really miss her, but I don’t know what to say to her now,’’ Barbie said. ‘‘What should I do?’’

‘‘Say ‘I’m sorry,’ ’’ Ariana replied.

‘‘You’re right. I should apologize,’’ Barbie said. ‘‘I’m not mad anymore. I just want to be friends again.’’

This summer, when I visited Mattel’s sprawling campus in El Segundo, a prototype of Hello Barbie stood in the middle of a glass-topped conference table, her blond tresses parted on the right and cascading down to her left shoulder. She looked like your basic Barbie, but Aslan Appleman, a lead product designer, explained that her thighs had been thickened slightly to fit a rechargeable battery in each one; a mini-USB charging port was tucked into the small of her back.

A microphone, concealed inside Barbie’s necklace, could be activated only when a user pushed and held down her belt buckle. Each time, whatever someone said to Barbie would be recorded and transmitted via Wi-Fi to the computer servers of ToyTalk. Speech-recognition software would then convert the audio signal into a text file, which would be analyzed. The correct response would be chosen from thousands of lines scripted by ToyTalk and Mattel writers and pushed to Hello Barbie for playback — all in less than a second.

‘‘Barbie, what is your full name?’’ Appleman asked the doll as I watched.

‘‘Oh, I thought you knew,’’ Barbie replied. ‘‘My full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts.’’

Ever since Barbie introduced herself to the world, she has stood at the uneasy center of questions about the influence of dolls on children. Unveiled at the New York Toy Fair in 1959, she quickly became both a cultural flash point — attacked by the pioneering feminist Betty Friedan and depicted by Andy Warhol — and one of the top-selling toys of all time, with more than a billion dolls purchased. Her stiltlike legs, tiny waist and enormous breasts set her apart from the childish dolls that had reigned until that time; in the 1950s, before Barbie was even released, a mother complained to Mattel that the doll had ‘‘too much of a figure.’’ Her appearance has remained controversial. Protesters at the 1972 Toy Fair complained that Barbie and other dolls encouraged girls ‘‘to see themselves solely as mannequins, sex objects or housekeepers,’’ according to an account in The New York Times.

When children reach preschool, they begin to avidly collect information about gender roles — what distinguishes girls from boys, and what each gender is supposed to say and do, says May Ling Halim, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach, who studies gender identity. Barbie and other dolls are hardly the only influences on this process, but they may be a significant source of gender information. A 2006 study in the journal Developmental Psychology bluntly concluded that ‘‘girls exposed to Barbie reported lower body esteem and greater desire for a thinner body shape.’’

Giving Barbie a voice only increases her potential impact. ‘‘The messages that she says could influence how kids define being a girl,’’ Halim says. An earlier version of the doll with a much more limited ability to speak — Teen Talk Barbie, released in 1992 — enraged critics with the utterance, ‘‘Math class is tough.’’ The American Association of University Women called on Mattel to recall the doll, and the company, apologizing, deleted the offending line from the computer chip.

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