In the Age of AI, Children Should Befriend Their Supertoys

B.J. Murphy
Aug 20, 2018 · 4 min read
Photo Credit: Andy Kelly

There is no doubt that artificial general intelligence (AGI) — an AI that is capable of generating human-level intelligence — is on its way. It’s only a matter a when, not if. According to some researchers, the quest to developing AGI may take longer than expected. But even then, the quest continues on.

As we continue moving forward, however, certain questions are already being asked. The more frequent question being: To what extent should children be exposed to technologies which rely on AI systems?

According to a report by Edison Research and NPR, “one-in-six Americans (16%) owns a voice-activated smart speaker.” By comparison to the number of AI speakers owned a year before, the number is now up by 128% and still rising. The impact that’ll have on children within households which own AI speakers is yet to be determined, but I am of the opinion that it’ll largely be a positive one.

In December of last year, I’d purchased a Google Home Mini for my brother, his fiancé, and their daughter. I figured each of them could find out ways to integrate the Google Home into their daily lives and make things a bit easier. What I didn’t expect (at least not so quickly) was this:

My Brother’s Fiancé: “Okay, peanut. Do you want mommy to read you a bedtime story or do you want Google?” Their Daughter (6-years-old): *snickers* I want Google to read me a story!”

I laughed alongside her, but clearly for different reasons. My niece laughed because she’s gangster like that and knows she just retired her parents in favor of Google. I, on the other hand, laughed out of disbelief that we’ve now reached a point where children are now comfortable enough around AI that they award them with the role of helping them sleep.

According to the information technology research company Gartner, 75% of all households within the U.S. will own an AI speaker by 2020. Meaning, around 75% (+/-) of children in the U.S. will have similar, if not more advanced, experiences as my niece. And companies like Google and Amazon are fully aware of this.

Last year, both Google and Amazon had launched skills for their own AI speakers that were specifically programmed for children. In doing so, it allows children to be exposed to intelligent systems that aren’t biological by nature, thus preparing them for a future where there are more non-biological intelligent systems than that of biological, i.e. humans.

And while privacy concerns continue to pervade throughout the conversation of children’s exposure to AI — especially AI which are retrofitted inside of toys — there is simply no doubt that a growing number of children are going to be exposed, daily, to supertoys that talk back to them. Some are even going as far as labeling this generation as Generation AI.

This emerging development of children owning supertoys — toys embedded with neural networks — reminds me of the popular sci-fi film AI: Artificial Intelligence directed by Steven Spielberg. More specifically, it reminds me of “Teddy” — the stuffed robot bear that befriended the robotic boy David.

As noted by the video provided above, Teddy was such a significant character in the entire film that it eventually came off as more “human” than even the human characters. It wasn’t just cognitively intelligent, but equally emotionally intelligent and loyal to a fault. While this presented certain problems in its relationship with the robotic boy, David, one could easily understand the benefits of human children having a loyal robot friend like Teddy.

Time and again, research has shown that, when robots are given anthropomorphic features, humans have the unique tendency to empathize with them. And, thus, respond in concern when those robots are “harmed” in any way.

This is an important facet of the human mind that will grow in significance as we become more exposed to AI systems, whether they come in the form of a personal robot or a supertoy. Imagine children being exposed to this specific mindset at a young age, where, by the time they’ve reached adulthood, their perception of robots will be no different from their perception of humans: ‘Do no harm to me and I’ll do no harm to you. And if you’re in danger, I’ll be there for you.’

But achieving so requires that children are exposed to AI systems at a young age. It requires for parents to allow their children to befriend their supertoys, even if they’re not at the stage of intelligence that Teddy is in the film AI. To not expose them to these technologies at a young age, I fear it’ll only result in a reduction of likelihood that adults of the future will treat robots with care and love; rather, with viciousness and cruelty as conveyed by adult humans in the film.


This article was originally published on Serious Wonder.

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B.J. Murphy

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Freelance Journalist. Marxist Transhumanist. Advocate of Fully Automated Luxury Queer Space Communism.