While Silicon Valley giants start to develop AI capabilities, Mattel is already launching the ultimate AI for your child, Hello Barbie, an AI toy that Mattel advertises as a child’s “perfect friend.” With Hello Barbie shipping to toy stores in a few months, some parents worry about the potentially negative impact an early generation AI toy could have on their children.
Children develop by observing the world around them. Peter Salovey, a pioneer of emotional intelligence, argues that children learn not only from the adults around them but also from the books they read; for example if characters are happy or sad, the child will learn “how characters cope in response to the feelings.”
If children are interacting more and more with Hello Barbie, it begs the question, what will children learn from the doll?
From sample dialogue presented in a New York Times Magazine’s article on the doll, it is clear that Hello Barbie lacks emotional intelligence.
For example, if a child uses a word that could be interpreted as “mean,” the doll does not respond because, as the manufacturer notes, “acknowledging bad behaviour often has the perverse effect of encouraging it.” However, the non-confrontational approach modelled for the child does not teach valuable skills around conflict resolution.
According to Sandra V. Sandy, the Director of Research at the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, “naturally occurring conflict is an opportunity for children to develop social, emotional, intellectual, and moral skills by working through their disagreements.” Instead, Hello Barbie’s unsophisticated response precludes learning that a child might have had with a human playmate.
Hello Barbie’s lack of emotional intelligence also shines through when the doll responds to a child expressing a negative emotion. If a child says that he or she is feeling “bad” or uses any other “negative words,” Hello Barbie will indiscriminately say, “I’m sorry to hear that.” Such a response reinforces the idea that negative emotions are undesirable, which can lead to poor mental health. If Hello Barbie instead asked, “why are you feeling bad?” the child might try to understand their emotions rather than learning all negative emotions are undesirable.
AIs are inevitable. But, the question remains whether they will elevate us, modelling, and helping to develop more emotional intelligence, or if they will they stagnate us, reinforcing simplistic behaviour patterns.
It is unsurprising that ToyTalk, the company developing Hello Barbie for Mattel, does not list any developmental psychologists or trained emotional intelligence experts as employees on their website. I hope that future AI development teams will look beyond coders and natural-language-processing specialists to employ experts in all aspects of human interaction, so that when the future AI comes, it helps us to be more human.
Emily Grewal was a Product Manager at Facebook and is now a Life Coach at Actant Coaching.
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