When Elly was four, her Uncle Mark gave her a Chatty Cathy doll for Christmas. I remember it well. We were all amused and intrigued by this “talking doll.” You pulled and released a ring pull on her back and she “spoke.”
However, the concealed recording only produced 11 phrases and even the four-year old knew the doll wasn’t really talking. Cathy’s charm wore off rather quickly.
Fast forward to now. The paradigm has shifted and talking toys have taken on a weirdly sinister character. Thanks to the digital revolution and advances in the field of artificial intelligence, the new Barbie can simulate a real conversation, responding to comments as if she understands them. Actually her roll out may have been somewhat premature since, according to some of the reviews, the most often produced response when you push her belt buckle is “Uh oh, I can’t find a WiFi connection.”
But don’t worry, Barbie’s conversational skills will improve in short order. Today she is programmed to recognize spoken clues that direct her to select from among 8,000 responses.. And she remembers some of what she hears, like the child’s name, a pet’s name, etc. and she incorporates that information into the conversation.
Even though children understand that Barbie is not really alive, they cannot fully grasp just how she works (who can?) and a doll who responds to whatever you say in a reasonably logical way is a powerful plaything especially if the adults, intent on their own electronic devices, don’t often pay close attention to what you are saying.
We all need to have face to face interactions with other humans who have feelings of joy, anger, disgust, admiration—and love— and who express these feelings through language and facial expression. This is how children learn to have feelings of their own and to empathize with others. The process starts when the infant first brings his mother’s smiling face into focus and continues throughout life.
Barbie, however, does not— and never will— have feelings. And children who spend a lot of time with a robot risk becoming, in some measure, robotic.
After a childhood relating to talking toys and an adulthood conversing with Siri and Alexa and their as yet unimagined sophisticated and smarter progeny, these kids should have no objection to a nursing home where their caregivers will be robots that look like nurses.
Don’t scoff. Such a scenario is already in the works with Japan leading the way. They expect a shortfall of 380,000 nursing care workers for the elderly by 2025 and robots are already on the job there. So far they don’t look like people, but they’re working on it.
O, brave new world/ That has such people in it.
William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 5, Scene 1.