Hello Barbie, Chatbots, and the Challenges of Talking Toys

James Vlahos recently published an insightful article on Hello Barbie, the soon to be released talking edition of Mattel’s fashion doll. This past spring, when Hello Barbie was debuted at Toy Fair 2015 in New York, there was a flood of negative press. The primary objection to the doll, which Mattel is building in partnership with speech and AI company ToyTalk, was that the Toytalk technology represents an invasion of privacy. In a blog post I wrote back in February, I briefly addressed these concerns. Conversations children have with ToyTalk’s apps and devices are sent back to their servers for analysis and storage (just like conversations we have with Siri and GoogleNow).

Hello BarbieThough Vlahos’s article touches on the privacy issue, his main focus is on what makes the talking Barbie work. Vlahos was invited to Mattel’s Imagination Center in El Segundo, CA to observe firsthand how the newly conversational Barbie interacted with real girls from the area.

Hello Barbie, it turns out, shares a lot in common with chatbots. All of her dialog is scripted by a small team of writers, including dramatic author Sarah Wulfeck. The writers decide what words to put into Barbie’s mouth. More importantly, they must anticipate what girls will ask their doll companion.

Years ago when I built my first chatbot on the popular site Pandorabots using AIML, I didn’t have to start from scratch. I could import the open source A.L.I.C.E library into my newly created chatbot and take advantage of the fruits of many years worth of someone else’s dialog-writing labor. The ToyTalk authors started from a blank canvas. Based on Vlahos’s article, they even (re)invented a chatbot scripting language they call PullString, named after the cord you used to pull from the backs of dolls and animals to get them to talk.

But what do you have Barbie say? Guessing what children will ask and figuring out how to respond is a challenge every botmaster knows well. To make the challenge even greater, Barbie is targeted at girls from the ages of 3 to 9 and even older. That’s a wide age range to cover and a response that might work for a 5-year-old could very well backfire for a 9-year-old, and vice versa.

One way around this challenge is to create a framework that puts Barbie in charge. If Barbie can be the one leading the conversation, then the possible user inputs are narrowed. Vlahos discovered that the team of writers is trying to do just that by constructing games that Hello Barbie can play with her human friends. One example is a mock game show in which Barbie asks the girl to nominate a person as the winner of various humorous prizes.  Creating a game environment allows Hello Barbie to maintain control of the conversation.

How will Barbie’s conversational abilities hold up under real usage? That remains to be seen. Many of those who commented online about the article expressed skepticism that Hello Barbie will be engaging for children in the long term. Presumably the writing team can keep adding scripts to Barbie’s repertoire so that her topics of conversation expand over time.

A big advantage that Hello Barbie has over traditional chatbots is that the ToyTalk technology enables the doll to remember key facts from previous discussions. If Barbie can remember that Brittany’s favorite color is orange, that she loves to play soccer, and that she wants to be a paleontologist when she grows up, that should help keep Brittany engaged.

Regardless of the skepticism, the age of talking toys is upon us. Hello Barbie is scheduled to launch in time for this Christmas. Now it’s up to the creative writers and chatbot master-types of the world to prove to the skeptics that talking toys and conversational devices can be forces for good. 

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