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Hello, Barbie! What Do You Want To Talk About Today?

Hello Barbie is displayed at the Mattel showroom at the North American International Toy Fair in New York.
Mark Lennihan
Hello Barbie is displayed at the Mattel showroom at the North American International Toy Fair in New York.

Barbie is about to talk back. She has talked before, with a pull-string in her back, so she could utter a phrase or two, like, "Let's have a pizza party!"

But Mattel is about to roll out Hello Barbie, who has a mic in her waist that connects to a server in a cloud. A company called Toy Talk will analyze whatever a child tells Barbie and play one of about 8,000 replies that will be recorded and updated to stay current.

Program Hello Barbie to say, "Donald Trump," "Chicago Cubs," and, "According to polls ..." and she could do my job.

Reporters who've spent time with Hello Barbie report she sounds well-programmed and conversational. But a lot of people are alarmed by what she will hear.

"This is really about Mattel eavesdropping on a child's heart and soul — and the most intimate things about their lives," says Susan Linn, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Who wants to worry that the Barbie they tuck next to a child will spill their most intimate thoughts to marketers, government agencies or hackers? Or that Mattel will use the information Barbie coaxes from the mouths of babes to say, "So you like unicorns. Tell your parents to buy our great new Razzle Dazzle Unicorn doll!"

Could Russian hackers tap a cloud to make a million Hello Barbies proclaim, "Vladmir Putin sure is cool, isn't he?"

I'm dismayed that this new Barbie talks at all.

Children, not corporations, should make dolls talk. Boys and girls should use their imaginations to make dolls say things that are silly, funny, or bawdy, and not engineered by professionals.

It's so delightful to overhear the babble of children as they give voice to dolls and stuffed animals. We tell things to dolls because they can't talk back; we imagine what they might tell us.

But I don't see much fun or play in children sitting at Barbie's tiny vinyl feet to ask questions and wait for answers, as if Barbie were Buddha.

Children have a talent for creative destruction. I like to think a lot of children may get a new Hello Barbie and be excited to talk with her. But their little brothers and crazy uncles will say rude things, just to hear how she replies, kids will plunge Barbie into the bathtub, just to see if she makes bubbles when she talks underwater, and after a rough few days of tests and trials, Hello Barbie will break down.

Parents will vow to repair her, but never quite figure out how, and Hello Barbie will fall silent. Then children can begin to really play.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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