Enhancing friendship, not replacing it.


The cover of this week’s New York Times Magazine featured a close up
of toy idol Barbie, her blonde, blue-eyed, placidly smiling face
accompanied by the tagline, “Now I have a brain!” and in smaller
print, “Goodbye, Imaginary friends. Hello, A.I. Dolls.” The article
 detailed Mattel’s efforts to create an artificially intelligent toy, a Barbie doll that could engage in conversation with the young girls (or boys) who own her. Sarah Wufleck, who helped create Barbie’s dialogue, is quoted as “imagin[ing] a girl taking the new doll into her bedroom and closing
the door.”

As cool as it is to have a doll that can talk back, there is something unsettling about a toy marketed as a sort of replacement friend. It is reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s comedy Her, in which a shy, introverted man finds true love—in his artificially intelligent operating system, Samantha. The ever-present, always helpful and agreeable Samantha is not too far a cry from a Barbie doll that, when prompted, will tell a child, “You made friends with me right away.” But how will this translate into a child’s real experiences making new friends?

The NYT article expresses a few of these concerns: with a toy that is
programmed to ignore anything unkind a child might say to it, how will
kids learn empathy? Will a toy that never fights with you, is never moody, and never challenges your ideas help or hinder your social development? Who is to say some children won’t prefer to spend all
their time talking to Barbie behind closed bedroom doors, and not with other kids?

Unlike talking Barbie, Linkitz was designed to enhance social interaction and cooperative play in real life. As a technology toy, this sets Linkitz apart. Linkitz aren’t built to be a toy that a child plays with alone. Linkitz is a toy that responds to a child and her friends: adding color to a game of tag by lighting up when chasing someone, enhancing a game of Miss Mary Mack or Slide with lights that keep time to clapping, or sensing
when friends are nearby and lighting up to celebrate your friendship. Linkitz encourages kids to explore the world outside their bedroom doors, and gives them the tools to make that world more fun.

--Caroline Neel

(Photo "Marie Stien" by Philippe Put licensed under CC BY 2.0)