• Dr. Timothy Smith

Barbie Gets Real Again


Photo Source: Pixabay

Toy makers continue to expand the use of artificial intelligence and robotics in toys such as Cognitoys’ Dino, which you can pick up for under forty dollars from Robot Shop or other retailers. Dino looks like a friendly, green or pink plastic dinosaur, which through a Wi-Fi enabled connection with IBM’s Watson, interacts through voice with and learns about a child. Dino even adapts to a child’s development level and learning style to be a companion and instructor. The goal of Cognitoys is for Dino to become your child’s companion and to use what Watson learns to help a child to navigate the world with a companion like Dino. There is more according to the manufacturer's website, “Dinos don’t just respond, they respond intelligently. If a child’s scared, the Dino consoles the child and encourages them to speak to an adult they trust. Or, if a child tells the Dino they’re sad, the toy may suggest meditation or listening to a funny joke.” (cognitoys.com) In China, tens of millions of parents every year buy a companion robot toy for their children called Pudding BeanQ by Roobo (roobo.com). Pudding BeanQ acts as a question answering friend for children that grows in sophistication as the child develops, also provides emotional support, and helps Chinese children learn English.

The toy making giant, Mattel Corporation, provides many toys for children, including Matchbox Cars, Fisher Price toys, and the genuinely iconic Barbie doll. Since Barbie’s introduction in 1959, the doll has been at the center of many controversies and simultaneously been a beloved toy for millions of girls around the world. Mattel has sought to innovate Barbie technically over the years. Following Mattel’s introduction of the world’s first talking doll “Chatty Cathy,” Barbie gained a pull string activated voice in 1968. The year 2015 witnessed another step in Barbie’s evolution called Hello Barbie. Using Wi-Fi, Hello Barbie employs many advanced technologies to allow her to talk, listen. and carry on a conversation with young girls. Hello Barbie uses artificial intelligence for voice recognition, machine learning to tailor conversations, and cloud computing to process and store all the information needed to personalize each person’s experience with Barbie. In line with other smart toys, in 2017, Barbie promised to take another significant step further into the digital world when Mattel would launch for the Christmas rush a new more intelligent holographic Barbie. For the first time, Barbie would leave the physical plane and be available as an interactive, dancing, talking three-dimensional hologram. Instead of the famous 1/6 scale plastic doll that girls can play with and share with their friends, holographic Barbie will live in a clear plastic box atop a base that sparkles with LED lights and emblazoned with the name Barbie. Like Amazon Echo or Google Dot, you can ask for a weather report, and Barbie will tell you the weather and even recommend the appropriate clothes to wear.

In the late fall of 2017, however, Mattel announced a delay in the launch of the holographic, artificial intelligence enabled Barbie just before Christmas last year. Then early in 2018, According to the Wall Street Journal, Mattel CEO, Margot Georgiadis a former executive at Google, announced the “elimination of extraneous technology from its products.” In a Wall Street Journal article titled, “Mattel Ditches High-Tech Barbies, Goes Back to Basics,” by Paul Ziobro, the author describes a decision by the management to bolster their bottom line by simplifying their product line and focusing on more traditional forms of play such as cooking and baking or career emulation such as doctor or veterinarian. The holographic Barbie does not appear to be a part of the product line anymore. In contrast to the artificial intelligence-based products like Cognitoy’s Dino or BeanQ, Barbie stepped back from a holographic, digital toy to the physical world and more traditional play. Does this mean that the smart toys and companion robots may not resonate as well with children as previously imagined? More likely, it will not be an either-or situation with smart toys but an evolution, and it appears that Barbie represents a toy that plays best in the real world for now.

Dr. Timothy Smith

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.

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