Hello Barbie, Hey Green Dino, Are You Good for Us?

Should I be the grandmother that rushes out to buy Hello Barbie or Green Dino as this year’s must-have Christmas gift or take a wait-and-see stance on a provocative new direction in interactive toys?

“Using proprietary AI engines and speech recognition tools, [these toys] are able to understand conversations, give intelligent responses and learn on the fly,” according to a Washington Post review. The reporter asks good questions about these game-changing toys “because they have the potential to fundamentally change the nature of how we interact with people and objects around us”. 

I have no intention of outsourcing my conversations with my grandchildren to a toy; however, they have social advantages and learning opportunities many children don’t. And these toys could have more time, patience and scads more knowledge than I or their parents do. Frankly, I would like to join in the play.    

Could AI toys be a boon to learning or lead us into some creepy corridors where human psychology and privacy are compromised in the worst possible place—with young children? I honestly don’t know the answer to these questions which is why I turned to my colleagues in the Association for Professional Futurists to explore them.  These toys raise the kinds of questions we struggled with at a recent gathering exploring the learning remix

Futurists earn their living through scenario thinking. Here are just a few of their very good questions about AI toys:

  • Could these toys close the vocabulary gap for children raised in impoverished environments? 
  • What are the privacy implications for businesses collecting information that should never leave the home?
  • Will toy companies transform into data companies with an extraordinary repository of consumer information any business would fight to have?
  • What are the diagnostic possibilities for detecting conditions like autism and learning disabilities?
  • Could these toys fill other important roles such as parental surveillance to keep children safe when parents cannot be on the scene? (Baby monitors sell very well.)
  • Will there be cultural differences in how these AI toys evolve and respond?
  • Will there be generational differences in how ready people are to buy these toys?
  • There’s always a hype cycle in new technologies; will children buy into this one?

For me, this exploration has generated an even larger question. Thinking as the grandmother I am, I want to know who has the collective social responsibility to evaluate these toys or any other choices we make with consequences for young children.   

I see a new dimension to my analysis of future trends, issues and developments: What is the lifetime exposure to the futures we choose? As we make choices for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, what just process will ensure we give them every advantage without exposing them to life-changing risk?