Hello Barbie!

Hello Barbie can have a (sort of) conversation with you. In your perception is a talking doll, in techie terms it is an IoT. Credit: Mattel

Barbie has stepped into the Digital World. Meet Hello Barbie, the talking doll.

Several years ago, but not so many, a few people started to say that "everything that can be connected will be connected". It was not clear why you would want to connect a fridge, or a doll, but the assumption was that someone will be exploiting that connectivity.
The reasons for such exploitation were weak to say the least. And they really didn't make a lot of sense, nor practical nor business sense. Yet, the prediction stood and now we are seeing that is becoming reality and that, indeed, there can be some practical sense in connecting a doll to the Internet.

Take "Hello Barbie".  The Mattel doll has been equipped with a computer and WiFi connectivity, and it can be your for just 74.99$. It was released just in time for 2015 Christmas shopping. The selling point? It can listen to you and talk back with a slate of some 8,000 sentences that will grow as time goes by.

The understanding of what you are saying to find an appropriate answer would require too much computation capability requiring a more powerful processor (and more memory) pushing the price upward. Mattel found it cheaper to provide connectivity and perform all computation in the cloud via Internet and partnered with ToyTalk to create the app and support the speech recognition and the uttering of meaningful answers.

Besides, this allows for an easier upgrade of performances and it opens up the door to new services (will we have Hello Barbies talking to other "barbies" or "kens" in the near future?).

Hello Barbie listens to what you say but to avoid "her" to eavesdrop your home conversations there is a button (the buckle on her belt) you need to press to put her in listening mode. So far so good, although it makes the interaction less natural. The button controls the computer but the computer is controlled by the instructions it has been programmed to use. What if someone hacks into the computer and change them?

Here comes the other prediction:

"Anything that can be hacked will be hacked"

Indeed, as reported in a Fortune article, security experts have already discovered a few weakness in the communications software that would allow hacking into the conversation between the doll and the servers in the cloud.

One might say that hacking into a conversation between a little girl and a doll is not highly motivating for hackers but who knows. One reason might be to pick up conversation in the background using the doll as a trojan horse in a well to do family.

Besides the concern for security breaches, I find this appearance of dolls into the cyberspace a signal that we are moving towards a future where there is a seamless presence of atoms and bits in our life, where augmented reality is becoming everyday reality.

Digital toys have the power to shape future generations perception of the world, and of life reality. We can be surprised, amazed, by a doll that can talk to us. For newborns this is no more amazing than seeing us talking to them or their dog wagging its tail when called.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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