Controversial

The Toys Are Listening (And Marketing)

When you were a child, you probably spent countless hours talking to your toys. No judging here — kids do that.

Whether it was a group of dolls at tea, a teddy bear who was the only one who really understood you or your favorite action figure who accompanied you on missions to the moon and back, these toys and the dialogues you had with them played an important role in helping to shape the person you grew up to be.

Now, toymakers want in on the game.

A slew of high-tech and conversational toys, armed with artificial intelligence (AI) and voice recognition software, will hit the market, just in time for the holiday season. Unlike their predecessors — which include Dolly Rekord, who spoke nursery rhymes in the 1920s; Chatty Cathy, a doll released in 1959 whose 11 phrases included ‘‘I love you;” and Teddy Ruxpin, whose eyes and mouth moved as he told stories from a cassette tape mounted in his torso, in the 1980s — they will not only have the capability of holding conversations with a child, they will also contain the technology necessary to recognize the voice of their owner and learn about them as they interact.

Through voice recognition software like that found in Mattel’s Hello Barbie, due to be released in late November, the toys will be able to learn about the child’s preferences — their favorite color, for example — as they interact. The doll records only when the child holds down a button; the words are then transmitted to an online hub, where they are processed by algorithms, and a response is composed. According to Oren Jacob, CEO of ToyTalk, which developed the voice recognition software for Mattel, the ability to talk to Barbie was “the single-most requested thing kids have asked [for].”

A big concern here is that these toys amount to surveillance and their algorithmically generated responses could be used to deliver marketing messages in an extremely persuasive form.

“There’s nothing to prevent them from talking to children about brands or products or new movies or music,” Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, recently told Marketplace. “One of our main concerns is that these toys can be used as viral marketing devices.”

Another concern is the ways in which this expanded dialogue could expand the influence Barbie and other AI-powered toys has on child development.

‘‘The messages that she says could influence how kids define being a girl,’’ says May Ling Halim, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach, who studies gender identity, recently told The New York Times. Barbie and other dolls are just one of a diverse array of factors that influence this process, but they can be a significant source of gender information, Halim says. NYT notes that an earlier version of Mattel’s doll — Teen Talk Barbie, released in 1992 — who had much more limited speech capability, enraged critics with the phrase, ‘‘Math class is tough.’’ Mattel deleted the line from the doll’s programming after the American Association of University Women called for a recall of the product.

The idea of a toy learning about your child may still be creepy to many parents, and reception for Hello Barbie has been decidedly mixed as consumers try to sort out where their boundaries lie. Even those within the industry are also unsure exactly how the new technology should be employed. Perhaps the story of how the technology that enables the doll’s intelligent interaction was developed could hold a few clues.

Four years ago, Jacob, who had recently been working at Pixar, was having an interesting exchange with his seven-year-old daughter via Skype. As she sat on the floor of their California home chatting with her father, she pointed across the room at a favorite stuffed animal, whom she called Tutu, and asked, ‘‘Daddy, can I use this to talk to Tutu?’’ The comment, which seemed forgettable at the time, would ultimately be the seed of an idea that Jacob and ToyTalk Cofounder Martin Reddy would grow into an entire company. That would grow into the technology used to power Hello Barbie.

Much like Skype and other technology that has come before and after it, there is usually a fair amount of apprehension for consumers when they first encounter it. How does it change the status quo? What does it mean for my normal habits and the ways that I’m used to doing things? How does it positively impact my life, and what is the potential negative impact?

The introduction of more advanced AI in toys, and the public’s gradual acceptance of them, is a powerful tool that gives manufacturers a competitive edge, not just in marketing, but in product development as well. With this, a manufacturer doesn’t have to spend additional time identifying what colors, features and content areas children are most interested in, as well as how long they stay engaged with a toy, how frequently they play with it and at what times of the day. All of this valuable information allows them to make faster development decisions and get products to market in less time and at a lower cost to them.

For consumers, this holiday season may mark the first in a series of hurdles that must be jumped in order for toys armed with artificial intelligence to be accepted into the lexicon of appropriate children’s toys. While feelings are mixed, excitement is certainly high, and toymakers and children alike are excited by the prospect of finally getting to have a conversation with Barbie.

Those children’s parents, on the other hand, may be less than enthused about (and more than a little creeped out by) the prospect of trying to upsell their child with targeted marketing in those chats.

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