When Toys Talk (and Listen)
Hello Barbie had been chatting with children for just a few weeks — breathlessly inquiring about family and favorite animals from behind a permasmile and then answering with an appropriate prerecorded response — when she was smacked with a lawsuit.
Mattel’s talking doll had stirred privacy concerns from the start, since she records and stores the responses of her conversational playmates to make future chats smarter. Months before she even hit shelves last year, a children’s consumer group launched a “Hell No Barbie” campaign, followed by a petition to “Drop the ‘Hello Barbie’ Eavesdropping Doll.” Then came the suit, alleging the toy invaded girls’ privacy. Though PullString, the San Francisco–based developer behind Barbie’s technology, asserts that the information is never used for advertising, the concerns reflect a broader anxiety of our times: that in order for our gadgets to effectively entertain us or answer our questions, we have to hand Silicon Valley companies intimate details of our lives.
PullString was started five years ago when two former Pixar employees decided to bring AI-fueled dialogue to toys. The company is named after the analog mechanism that set Toy Story’s Woody speaking, and at its headquarters near San Francisco’s Union Square, playfulness is nearly a job requirement. When I visited in August, I passed photos of each employee as a kid and was shown to a conference room named Jarvis, after Iron Man’s artificially intelligent computer. I sat down with two members of the creative team: Scott Ganz, a gregarious former TV writer, and Sarah Wulfeck, whose pre-PullString voiceover credits include the rabbit in the video-game franchise Sonic the Hedgehog. The pair voice many of the company’s characters, but on any given day they may wrangle the most introverted engineer into playing a part, too. “It became this coercive, fast process,” said Ganz. “Like, ‘Hey, come here; you’re a panda bear!’” Scottish co-founder Martin Reddy was once deputized to play a boat captain; fast-talking CEO Oren Jacobs voiced a hyperactive octopus. Sound effects are often hand-recorded by the startup’s audio director, who has trekked to a Sonoma County farm for the perfect oink, to a Point Reyes meadery for buzzing bees, and to the USS Pampanito submarine for a Klaxon alarm.
In the years before Hello Barbie, the company released several conversational apps for phones and tablets, including SpeakaLegend, in which mythical creatures go on a quest to find a unicorn, and The Winston Show, in which animals host a variety show. The company’s most-downloaded app has been SpeakaZoo, which asks kids to coach angsty animals through their problems: a porcupine who yearns for a hug, a vampire bat who wonders what you think of her bloodlust. (One bossy kid’s reply is featured on the company website; its hilarity flattened in text: “Ummm, ’scuse me! Ummmmm, you can’t drink blood, OK! Because it’s, like, so disgusting!” ) The engineering team’s software shows which characters and storylines are getting the most engagement in real time, much like trending hashtags on Twitter.
The writers told me they were surprised by how quickly children got used to confiding in the apps. “I didn’t expect that kids would open up so quickly and reveal so much,” said Wulfeck. “Kids just have so much empathy that the second our character is like, ‘Oh, hi’” — she speaks in a crestfallen tone — “the kids’ll be like, ‘Are you OK? Do you need a hug? Is your mommy there to help you?’” They were also surprised by the seriousness of the conversations. Some kids, when asked how they are doing, “will respond, ‘I’m OK. My goldfish died,’” Wulfeck said. “And we’re like, oh, they’re going to talk about their dead pets with our characters. We have to write for these complicated topics.”
The team found that kids don’t just want to follow the characters’ lead but also want to play the interrogator — asking, for example, the animals’ names, favorite colors and foods, genders and ages. The writers had to script a basic biography for each character. They also found that many kids announce when they are off for a potty break, leading the team to write a new line (“OK, let me know when you’re back”). “Kids didn’t treat it like an appliance they could walk away from. They actually excused themselves,” said Ganz. “Kids felt they were with a presence.… We weren’t prepared for that.”
These responses are no surprise to University of Washington psychology professor Peter Kahn Jr., who has long studied human interactions with chatting robots. His research has found people will lie to a human to protect a robot’s “secret.” They’ll stand up for a robot who’s been wronged by a human. They’ll get perturbed by a robot who harms them. Kahn says participants hold the robot more accountable than a machine, but less than a human — what Kahn proposes is a third ontological category.
Kahn worries that if kids are overexposed to toys that never have hurt feelings or ask for anything in return, they won’t learn the give-and-take texture of human relationships. Wulfeck isn’t so sure. “There’s this idea of, is this weird, and are we tricking children?” she said. “I think kids have amazing imaginations, and they want to believe.”
Hello Barbie aims to be the most sophisticated conversant yet. She has the most complex script, with 8,000 lines of dialogue, and she catalogs a child’s preferences, deepening the sense of intimacy over time. Tell Hello Barbie you like math, and she’ll ask you in the future about math class. Tell her your mother died, and the doll will never bring up Mom again. In testing rounds, PullString got feedback on what they’d missed. They hadn’t expected kids to say that their favorite color is black. (“There’s little gothy kids out there after all!” said Wulfeck.) And they had to write dialogue to accommodate unexpected favorite ice cream flavors like bubble gum.
PullString’s voice-recognition technology has improved, too. They can listen for the duration of a response and identify when kids flip-flop (“Nooooo — Yes! I do”). “That used to drive us crazy scripting-wise, because we would really only have the ability to hear ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” said Wulfeck. The toys have also learned to skip ahead in the script, much like a human would. If a child who is asked, “Do you like ice cream?” answers, “Yes, I like chocolate,” the toy knows to dispense with “What flavor?” and go right to talking about chocolate.
Because PullString stores conversations for two years, privacy lawyers wonder when the first subpoena will be served to the company in a custody or child-abuse case. (The CEO says so far they haven’t fielded any.) PullString does allow parents to delete all their child’s data from their server via an app, but, surprisingly, less than 1 percent of parents have chosen to do so. That’s in part because parents seem to enjoy the recordings: Nearly one-third engage with the developer’s website, where they have the option to share the audio files on social media so everyone else can listen, too.
Recently, my sister-in-law took advantage of this feature and forwarded me a trove of audio snippets of my 5-year-old niece interacting with SpeakaZoo. I approached the recordings warily. But my concerns were eclipsed the moment I heard her first response. She was chiding a sleepy bear: “Please wake up, or I’ll growl at you, beary, and I’ll scratch you!” My sister-in-law said my niece had to warm up to the idea of talking to an app. When, early on, a spazzy warthog asked what she thought about its cravings for bacon, her tentative answer was, “Uhhh, uhhh, I don’t know what to say, Mama.”
PullString and Mattel settled the case against Barbie out of court in August, the plaintiffs’ attorney says. But the companies don’t seem scared off by the lawsuit: They’re launching a successor this holiday season, the Hello Barbie Dreamhouse. Kids can cue the Wi-Fi-connected “smart house” with the key phrase “Hello, Dreamhouse!” followed by commands, like “Turn the staircase into a slide!” or “Dance-party mode, please!” — setting the dwelling into a frenzy of flashing lights. Mattel says the toy will let kids imitate the exchanges they see adults having with Amazon Echo, though the toy will be more than a hundred dollars more expensive — a cool $299. “Kids oftentimes see parents interacting with those products and want to mimic that behavior,” says Mattel’s spokeswoman Michelle Chidoni. “Barbie was always a reflection of the times.”