by Geoff Olson
She’s got a wasp-like waist, missile cone boobs, and a corona of blonde plastic hair. And she’s packing a microchip full of trouble, say critics who’ve painted “Hello Barbie” as the most disturbing Christmas gift of the year.
The doll is toymaker Mattel’s effort to rebrand their plastic role model for girls as a robotic confidant. She can learn from and respond to young owners through voice recognition technology.
Here’s how it works: after buying the doll, you (the parent) go online and set up an account using an email address. Your child can then press Hello Barbie’s belt buckle and begin to converse with her through the doll’s internal microphone. The child’s words are digitized and sent via home wifi to a remote server, which decodes the words and fires back an appropriate response for Hello Barbie to speak.
But not so fun to critics who peg the doll as an hourglass-shaped snoop. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) has launched a “Hell No Barbie” campaign to sound the alarm over family privacy and security. But creepy as the doll may be it’s hardly an outlier; the partnering of children with invasive gadgetry is becoming the new normal.
Consider a recent survey of parents of young children in a lower class community in Philadelphia. The majority of the children younger than four own mobile devices, and the relationships start early. Before their first birthday, over 40 percent of the children have used a mobile device on a daily basis to play games, watch videos or fiddle with apps. “The percentage increased to 77 per cent in two-year-olds and plateaued after that,” according to a summary of the report on the CBC.
28 percent of the two-year-olds required no help to navigate a mobile media device, and an alarmingly high percentage of parents passed devices on to their kids to keep them calm in public places or to put them to sleep.
“I cringe when I see toddlers with their devices in Banyen books,” writes a friend by email. “And their parents are so proud of them! On the other hand, I see beautiful young children who’ve had limited exposure to TV and smart gadgets. The difference between the two groups is striking.”
People who worry about the rise of Artificial Intelligence “may say that they’ll never submit to the comfort and convenience of technologies that dehumanize them, but to be perfectly honest, I think that many of them have already acquiesced,” insists Joshau Krause from The Daily Sheeple.
Echoing Kraus and my friend, psychologist and author Sherry Turkle warns that prolonged exposure to mobile devices may compromise the ability of young people to socialize and learn empathy.
Hello Barbie’s cousins are so-called “smart appliances,” which are being engineered to digitally retrieve every last detail about our personal habits, up to and including what’s said behind closed doors. Some of this highly marketable info will be flowing out through home wifi and cable networks, and the rest through smart meters, those Trojan Horses for the “Internet of Things.”
Across the pond, Antony Walker of techUK warns that powers being proposed in the British government’s draft Investigatory Powers Bill may allow hacking into “smart toys.” Devices that “may sit in a child’s bedroom but are accessible” can be remotely turned into instruments of spycraft, he warns. “In theory, the manufacturer of those products could be the subject of a warrant to enable equipment interference with those devices.”
As for Hello Barbie, Mattel subdivision Toy Talk promise they won’t share your child’s voice-to-text info with third parties, with this proviso: “when we believe in good faith that we are lawfully authorized or required to do so or that doing so is reasonably necessary or appropriate to (a) comply with any law or legal processes or respond to lawful requests or legal authorities, including responding to lawful subpoenas, warrants, or court orders.”
In other words, with potential surveillance through consumer electronics extending to everything from televisions to dolls, we’re talking about a slope that’s beyond slippery. It’s a greased slide for hackers hailing from the state or the street. I just wonder many parents learning this will shrug and go, “oh well,” and how many will go, “Orwell”.
The Vancouver Courier, Dec. 17