SHE'S BAAAACK

Mattel’s new “Hello Barbie” records kids’ voices and sends the intel back to corporate

This post has been updated.

At last, Barbie can actually gossip. Unveiled at the 2015 Toy Fair in New York City on Feb. 16, Mattel’s new “Hello Barbie” is a WiFi-connected doll that talks back whenever you talk to her. The hitch, as several outlets have reported, is that she will also repeat what you say back to the company.

Hello Barbie, which Mattel says will go on sale this fall, works by recording and processing users’ voices. Pressing a button on her belt prompts the toy, priced at $74.99 in the US, to ask a question, and then record the response with an embedded microphone and transmits to cloud servers. Voice-recognition software by San Francisco-based startup ToyTalk saves and decodes the content, and then uses it to formulate an appropriate response from Barbie.

As ToyTalk gathers recordings of its users’ conversations with Hello Barbie over time, it “learns” their name, interests and conversational habits, which Mattel says is intended to improve the quality of responses.

ToyTalk’s privacy page describes the process as follows:

We may use, transcribe and store such Recordings to provide and maintain the Service, to develop, test or improve speech recognition technology and artificial intelligence algorithms, and for other research and development or internal purposes.

ToyTalk also notes that those recordings may be shared with parents and third parties:

We may share Recordings with Service Providers who assist us in providing the Service, developing, testing and improving speech recognition technology and artificial intelligence algorithms, or otherwise conducting research and development.

We may also share feature extracted data and transcripts that are created from such Recordings, but from which any personal information has been removed, with Service Providers or other third parties for their use in developing, testing and improving speech recognition technology and artificial intelligence algorithms and for research and development or other purposes.

Of chief concern among parent groups is that the new Barbie may begin directing personalized advertisements at their children based on gathered intel.

“Mattel is committed to safety and security, and Hello Barbie conforms to applicable government standards,” Mattel said in a statement to the Washington Post. Quartz has reached out to Mattel for comment and will update the post with any response.

Update (March 16, 2015, 12:15pm): “No data collected can nor will be used for marketing, advertising, nor publicity purposes,” said ToyTalk CEO Oren Jacob in an emailed statement to Quartz.

Other home-based technologies that collect users’ speech, such as Samsung’s smart TV, have raised similar concerns. The TV’s voice command feature translates speech through third-party software into text that is routed back to the TV as a command.

For its part, Mattel says the inspiration behind Hello Barbie was its customers, not a marketing ploy. During a presentation of the toy at the New York Toy Fair, a Mattel spokesperson said: “The number one request we keep getting from girls is that they want to be able to have a conversation with Barbie. They want to talk to Barbie.”

 

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