Here’s a neat article which you can read here in the NYT Sunday Magazine about the new Barbie about to roll out in November. With the help of artificial intelligence and speech recognition, Hello Barbie can talk and interact. She comes with some 8000 lines of dialogue, a USB charging port, microphone, and Wifi transmitter. According to her creators, ‘‘We are trying to build her personality from scratch into the perfect friend.’’ As explained in the article, the bits of dialogue are basically “isolated modules of content on fashion, careers, animals and more.” I don’t think it is, but it could be that that’s what we are –pre-programmed bits of dialogue scraped together and built from scratch.
Hello Barbie works this way. “Each time, whatever someone said to Barbie would be recorded and transmitted via Wi-Fi to the computer servers of ToyTalk. Speech-recognition software would then convert the audio signal into a text file, which would be analyzed. The correct response would be chosen from thousands of lines scripted by ToyTalk and Mattel writers and pushed to Hello Barbie for playback — all in less than a second.” What the article does well is to highlight the intense amount of work of designers, writers, and voice actors it takes to make a perfect friend.
The ethical questions raised in the article relate to the possible negative impacts that Hello Barbie might have on her human handlers, particularly in regard to gender identity formation. But actually, I’m already feeling bad for Hello Barbie. Her fate’s not going to be pretty. I’m thinking about poor hitchBot, about whom you can read here. He’s the robot who tried to hitchhike his way to San Francisco. He didn’t last two weeks, his remains picked up somewhere outside of Philadelphia. Or the desiccated dolls in photographs like Untitled #342 by Cindy Sherman. Or even good natured Siri, who is the target of so much verbal abuse and teasing (“I hate you Siri,” “Fuck you, Siri,” “Where can I buy a gun, Siri?”). Once her girl human handlers and their brothers are finished with her, all that will be left of Hello Barbie will be severed heads and limbs.