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," 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."
It was probably inevitable that the so-called Internet of Things - those Web-connected thermostats and bathroom scales and coffee makers and whatnot - would beget the Internet of Toys. And just like Web-connected consumer gizmos that can amass details about their owners and transmit that data for remote analysis, Internet-connected toys hold out the tantalizing promise of personalized services and the risk of privacy perils.
"Is this going to be some creepy doll that records what is going on in your home without you knowing it?" asks Nicole A. Ozer, the director of technology and civil liberties at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. "What is being recorded? How long is it being stored? Who is it being shared with?"
The advent of connected toys that can record and talk back to children is likely to deepen this debate over the Internet of Things because of the potential for these intelligent toys to powerfully affect children's imagination, learning and social development.
A recent study conducted by researchers at Georgetown University, for instance, compared two groups of toddlers. One group played with plush toys that had been preprogrammed to say the child's name, and to say that they had the same favorite food and song as the child; the other played with plush toys that called each child "Pal" and liked different things. When the same toy character on-screen presented math skills - like arranging cups in order of size - the first group of toddlers performed better than those who played with less-personalized plush toys.
Sandra L. Calvert, the director of the Children's Digital Media Center at Georgetown and the lead author of the study, said that toys able to personalize their responses to children in real time could have an even greater effect on them.
"These could be real cutting-edge approaches to facilitate children's learning," Calvert told me. But, she added, the toys' impact would depend largely on the depth and breadth of their conversational abilities. "It's only as good as the programmer," she said.
Jacob hit upon the idea of developing conversational characters for children a few years ago after his daughter Toby, then 7, asked him if she could use Skype to talk to her stuffed animals. He had previously worked as the chief technology officer at Pixar Animation Studios. So he talked over the possibility with a former Pixar colleague, Martin Reddy. They decided to start ToyTalk.
"Could we actually create a character that could talk back and, if we could do that, what would it look like?" Jacob said.
To develop a system that could both understand a child's comments and say something engaging back, the company built its own platform to process spoken language - one tailored to the pitch of children's voices, their prosody and vocabulary. Now, for instance, when a child says "totes jelly" to a ToyTalk app, the language processor understands the phrase actually means: "I'm totally jealous."
The company also spent months testing out jokes, songs, rhymes and questions on focus groups of children to develop conversational characters complete with their own biographies and story arcs. Jacob sees creating conversation trees for these characters as a new art form, neither film nor video game.
Along the way, ToyTalk also developed a privacy process intended to give parents some control over their children's personal information. Before a child under 13 can use the conversation feature of the apps, a parent has to give permission and confirm it via email. When children want to interact with a character, they press a microphone button on the app like a walkie-talkie. Parents also have access to their child's recorded conversations and can, if they choose, delete them.
But the notion of this technology, originally designed for mobile screens, incarnated in the body of Barbie is already generating controversy, even before the toy has been introduced.
A couple of weeks ago, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy group in Boston, asked Mattel to shelve the talking doll. The group said the voice recordings amounted to "eavesdropping" and could be used to exploit the intimate feelings of children. "Whatever the child says will be manipulated and used to insinuate these dolls further into girls' lives," said Susan Linn, the group's director.
In a statement, Mattel said the company was "committed to safety and security" and that Hello Barbie's technology included "a number of safeguards to ensure that stored data is secure and can't be accessed by unauthorized users."
ToyTalk and Mattel executives are fully aware that children's advocates and feminists will be watching closely to see whether Hello Barbie challenges girls to think deeply or perpetuates beauty and gender stereotypes. Last fall, for instance, Mattel faced withering scorn when critics discovered that a children's book titled "Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer" showed the character seeking help from male friends to code a game.
"Everybody involved is very aware of how carefully this content needs to be crafted," Michael Shore, head of consumer insights at Mattel, told me earlier this week about Hello Barbie. "With this powerful a technology, this is something we need to be hypervigilant about."
If ToyTalk has any influence, however, Hello Barbie, rather than dooming children's privacy, could just as well usher in a new era of interactive playthings where children can develop elaborate conversations with toys similar to the way Minecraft players build out entire landscapes.
Of course, society may not be ready for children en masse seeking illusory relationships with intelligent devices - even if they are just mimicking their parents.
© 2015, The New York Times News Service