Who will be first to hack ‘Hello Barbie’?

September 18, 2015 Originally published on SFGate

Do you know what your child almost certainly does not need? The very thing that will make her question her barely extant hold on reality and induce a deep existential panic before she’s even able to successfully unscrew a jar of peanut butter?

That’s right: Dolls that talk. Or, more sinisterly, dolls that actually converse, in real time, in a normal woman’s voice, inhabiting a tone and persona that go so far as to actually offer your kid some semblance of real-world advice, sassy laments and bland platitudes galore – in short, dolls like Mattel’s bizarre new Hello Barbie, which will try, via Wi-Fi, sensors and the ability to instantly ping Mattel’s nefarious underground corporate bunkers every time your child utters a word, to actively befriend your child.

Is this not the source of incalculable psychic horror? Imminent therapy? The possible joining of the dimwit cult of Scientology? The source of the future creation of an awesome Burning Man camp? Damn right it is.

Only terrifying if you think about it

Only terrifying if you think about it

Judge for yourself. Hello Barbie now has a (you guessed it) Siri-like ability to “listen” to you child’s questions and her demands for a lock of Taylor Swift’s hair, and instantly offer a real-time reply, chosen via – what could possibly go wrong? – algorithm and all drawn from a faraway library of thousands of pre-recorded blips, all voiced by a professional actress but unfortunately not yet including, “OMG you should totally go to Burning Man someday,” “Guns are cowardly and disgusting,” “Marriage is sort of a crock, really,” or “Every time someone votes Republican, an angel gets its wings… torn off.”

Maybe Hello Barbie’s newest catchphrase “I love Planned Parenthood!” could actually do some good?

That’s right! The world’s most infamous perky blond doll now is now infused with sufficiently sophisticated A.I. that it might, just might, be able convince your child that there’s actually some sort of living entity inside that tiny, improperly proportioned frame, some sort of creepy, elfin pseudo-soul – not quite animal, not exactly human, something that takes the place of the voice and the consciousness your child’s own imagination usually installs in a toy – which, correct me if I’m wrong, is the whole point and pleasure of playing with dolls in the first place.

Doesn’t that seem… deadening? Weird? No longer will all Barbies just look identical – they will all sound exactly the same; they will reply with the same set of pre-set responses, with the same perkiness level, the same lilt, the same screaming tantrum when Barbie doesn’t get extra caramel swirls on her Vente triple mocha pumpkin spice cocaine latte.

Here’s a question: Why does this happen? Why do adults believe kids want elaborate toys that do everything for them, that talk and heat up and spit and cry and regret pounding so many margaritas last night? Because we’re lame? Because we’ve lost all imaginative capacity whatsoever?

Mattel’s reason is crude enough: Barbie only made the company a paltry billion dollars last year, down from $1.3 billion a few years ago. Seems the Queen of Blondes isn’t cranking out the profits like she used to. Time for an upgrade. If she fails this, watch for Barbie’s stint on an upcoming Celebrity Apprentice.

Here’s another question: How is this doll not ripe for even more subtle corporate brainwashing? Barbie’s already infamous for her impossible beauty standards, her sterile lump of a boyfriend, her terrible choice in automobiles, her problems with math. Now she gets to quietly help form your kid’s views and attitudes, too? What about product placement? Psychological engineering? “Barbie, I have too much homework at school,” your child will complain. “I it sounds like you might have ADHD! Ask your doctor about prescription-strength Adderall,” quips Barbie. “It’s like candy!”

Impossible? Maybe. But how can we be sure one of the four nervous millennials over at ToyTalk, the gang charged with scripting all of Barbie’s 8,000 responses, isn’t a climate-denying Trump supporter with a thing for Kim Davis? “Why are the wildfires so big and scary this year?” your daughter will innocently ask Hello Barbie. “Because God hates gay people, silly!” Barbie will giggle. “Now let’s go find more of your mom’s yummy raspberry vodka!”

Which brings us to the most obvious question of all: Do you know who else will have all sorts of sly fun with Hello Barbie? That’s right: Hackers.

I mean, of course. They’ve already proven they run high-tech cars off the road. They can already hijack everything from digital toilets to Wi-Fi refrigerators. What’s to stop the hackerati from messing with Mattel?

On second thought, that might not be such a bad idea after all. In the right hacker hands, this could be a far more positive situation than I imagined. Barbie could become genuinely empowering and interesting. Even, dare I say, a badass.

Dear Anonymous hacking collective and/or whomever hacked Ashley Madison: Now’s your chance to do some real good in the world.

Please go forth and hack into Mattel’s Hello Barbie response database, and plant a number of genuinely girl-empowering phrases and advice. Feel free to use Scarlett Johansson’s voice from “Her.” Because obviously.

Suggested additions: “God is even more make-believe than I am!”; “Never, ever date a frat bro”; “I have no idea why you’d want to go into tech, either”; “Monogamy is overrated!”; “Forget about me and go read His Dark Materials“; “You should see my kickass Instagram feed”; and of course, “OMG, girl. Planned Parenthood is the best!”

Read more here:: Who will be first to hack ‘Hello Barbie’?

Mark Morford

About Mark Morford