ToyTalk Debuts a Barbie With the Brain of Siri

Mark Lennihan/AP
Mark Lennihan/AP

Editor’s Note: This story appeared in the Saturday online edition of The New York Times. Would you buy your daughter a doll with AI that allowed it to study and adapt its responses to her speech patterns? Let us know in the comments below. 

Ever since Siri appeared as a regular feature on the iPhone, certain young children — and, let’s face it, some of their parents — have spent hours chatting up the virtual assistant, curious about the details of her humanoid back story.

Siri, where do you live? Siri, do you have a boyfriend? Siri, how old are you?

At a time when grown-ups can use voice commands to find restaurants, change channels on their TVs or get directions, it seems logical that children would now expect devices to understand their speech and respond in kind.

“To converse with a mobile device is an assumed truth if you are 10 years old today,” Oren Jacob, the chief executive of ToyTalk, a company that creates conversational characters for children, told me recently at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco. “That is not true of high school students.”

Founded in 2011, ToyTalk already produces popular animated conversational apps — among them the Winston Show and SpeakaZoo — that encourage young children to engage in complex dialogue with a menagerie of make-believe characters. Now the company’s technology, originally designed for two-dimensional characters on-screen, is poised to power tangible playthings that children hold in their hands.

This fall, Mattel plans to introduce Hello Barbie, a Wi-Fi enabled version of the iconic doll, which uses ToyTalk’s system to analyze a child’s speech and produce relevant responses.

“She’s a huge character with an enormous back story,” Mr. Jacob says of Barbie. “We hope that when she’s ready, she will have thousands and thousands of things to say and you can speak to her for hours and hours.”

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