Artificial Intelligence's Trojan Horse by Jamie Chung
Growing up, our toys were our friends. They were eager ears, ready to listen as we worked out the complexities and confusions of interacting with an adult world we didn’t understand. They were our silently supportive companions as we learned to navigate a culture with rules we didn’t and couldn’t understand, not without externalizing our feelings and thoughts with play. Our stuffed animals were captive audiences for those times of searching, crucial times, and they played a crucial role. But that’s all about to change. Hello Barbie was introduced in last week’s New York Times Magazine with a cover portrait of the doll shot by Jamie Chung. This Barbie speaks, listens, and learns about the child who owns it. It is a completely new level of artificial intelligence and poised to change how the next generation interacts with their toys.
To take a photo like the one Jamie took, he had to truly understand the context of this new toy and how it works. “This really has a profile of your child on the cloud that it will dip into to have the next conversation based on whatever that profile has built in the past with your kid,” says Jamie. “It’s like an introduction of an AI and it comes in the form of a Barbie. It’s like a Trojan Horse kind of thing.” Every conversation that the user has with the Barbie is filtered through an algorithm that creates an understanding of each unique child. It truly learns who everyone is. Then, accessing thousands and thousands of words and phrases, meticulously recorded by voice actors, the Barbie is able to maintain a legitimate conversation with the kid who owns it. It is genuine interaction with artificial intelligence.
When it comes to play time, though, kids may not be able to distinguish between artificial and organic intelligence. Jamie and the magazine wanted to highlight the blurred line between artificial and organic for these portraits. “I kind of wanted to make it look like it was lifelike,” explains Jamie. “So I shot it like a beauty portrait that’s very clean, very modern. I thought it should look like a super modern portrait because this is a super modern item, very lifelike, larger than life.” He set up each pose to reflect a very human moment, whether it's as if Barbie is listening intently, or you caught her attention as she walked by. This is a doll who is listening, interacting, caring. The human element is inherent in that behavior so the photographs highlight that.
Once Jamie got all the images that New York Times Magazine needed for the spread, he decided to have a little fun with the doll. “We did a little GIF animation and that ended up on the New York Times homepage, which was really cool,” says Jamie. “This is my first cover for New York Times Magazine so that was really great. They were great collaborators. It was a really impressive experience all around working with them.”