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08.05.2024 - 15:31

“It’s Nice to Have A Friend”: A Personal Journey of Parenting in the AI Age

08.05.2024 - 15:31

Recently, I came across the trailer of a horror movie called “Megan”, a tale that unfolds in the realm of artificial intelligence and friendship. The storyline, set in a toy company and centered around a brilliant robotic engineer, introduces Megan, a lifelike robot designed to befriend a recently orphaned niece. Initially programmed to offer support and companionship, Megan, with her uncanny ability to form emotional connections, soon becomes an irreplaceable friend for the orphaned niece to the point where she cannot tell whether Megan is human or not. Soon, Megan becomes an overly protective companion, bringing forth a series of, let’s simply say, unsettling situations. While I was watching the trailer, it got me thinking: what do children really feel about the machines with AI that surround us on a daily basis? Could these unsettling situations then be realistically possible at various levels and in different scenarios in real life?

In this cinematic exploration, the cautionary tale of "Megan" serves as a poignant entry point into the broader conversation about parenting in the age of AI. It prompts contemplation on the intricacies of guiding our children through a world where technology blurs the lines between friendship and control, within the binary of animate and inanimate, between easy access to information or working hard for it, and the choice between internalized cyber vulnerability or a strong internet command…

Let's make this simpler, and go through the four pivotal aspects that shape my personal approach and tactics to parenting in this rapidly evolving era:

1- Privacy & security

2- Digital natives, not digital indigenes

3- Decency by humanizing technology

4- Accountability and potential for bias 

Privacy & Security:

In our hyper-connected world, the advent of artificial intelligence and the like has introduced new challenges in parenting, especially concerning online safety. It is a common pattern for phishers to easily manipulate children through fake online personas or visuals, audios, or texts generated by AI. According to the 2023 Child Online Safety Index (COSI) released by the DQ Institute, nearly 70% of children aged 8-18 worldwide have encountered cyber risks in the past year. In this era of AI, we cannot, obviously, stop the kids from making use of AI tools for educational or entertainment purposes – as a matter of fact, AI actually proves to be a quick and easy-to-access tool for information and a great source of entertainment. But how do we guide our kids to discern right from wrong, real from unreal, safe from dangerous, while ensuring they are secure and get the best educational benefits and tools out of this journey?

Back to basics: conversation and connection. That is the most important way of ensuring “the kids are alright”. You need to have a strong connection to your child so that they feel comfortable coming to you if they ever encounter any troubles. Talk to them, do not get exhausted by their questions, and provide them with explanatory answers. Another thing is, on top of what we already know, setting up parental controls with the help of an internet specialist, supervise their internet usage, limit screen time...etc.; I believe the most essential and efficient approach for AI is establishing realistic boundaries for AI tool usage and collaborate with teachers. Educating our children about online safety, discussing potential dangers, and staying informed about the latest AI technologies for their positive benefit are of paramount importance as we witness the development of AI together.

Digital Natives, Not Digital Indigenes:

Raising digital natives entails understanding the potential impact of their perception of AI as possessing a life and death quality. Can AI, devoid of a "soul," influence my child's interactions with machines and fellow humans? Nature versus nurture takes center stage, while we are reminded of the potential pitfalls in relying too heavily on technology for companionship and guidance.
We find ourselves as digital guests in a swiftly evolving technological landscape. However, these children aren't just navigating it – they're growing up alongside it, truly becoming the digital natives. They'll inherit the consequences of our nurturing of artificial intelligence. Recognizing this responsibility, it becomes crucial to guide and teach them not just to inhabit but to fully embrace their digital homeland. As natives, they should be ready to face both the challenges and benefits inherent in this digital era. Our duty is not only to instill in them efficiency in using technology but also an ever-growing sense of wonder. It's essential to nurture a curiosity that drives them to explore the positive potentialities of the digital realm, while at the same time, we must provide them with the knowledge and skills to navigate potential pitfalls with caution and resilience.

Decency by Humanizing Technology

While AI serves as a powerful educational tool, cultivating a genuine sense of wonder about life requires more than robotic interactions.

Consider this hot take: Can the dehumanization of non-living objects, even those with AI, impact my child's treatment of people? To me, teaching children the habit of kindness, gratitude, and respectful communication is more crucial than ever, particularly in our relationship with technology and AI. Cultivating in children a sense of empathy, nurturing their social and emotional intelligence while valuing the human qualities that define us, at all times in life. By intertwining the development of technological literacy with the cultivation of virtues, we equip them to navigate a future where the relationship between humans and technology is symbiotic rather than alienating. This is the ideal future I foresee. And I believe that this is one of the most important conversations we must have moving forward.

Potential for Bias and Accountability

There are several ads for robots online that you can buy for your kids, to be a non-judgmental and fun companion for them, to be a wise teacher at times, to act as a quick problem-solver or a good shoulder to rely on. This forces us to consider the potential biases inherent in the algorithms shaping our children’s digital experiences and, subsequently, their understanding of the world. A recent study from University of Washington and Johns Hopkins shows that robots trained on artificial intelligence make decisions imbued with racism and sexism. We certainly wouldn't want our children to perceive these concepts, well, as the norms. We must be even more careful regarding how AI algorithms influence our children’s perspective of the outside world, viewed through the lens of AI nurtured by human beings.

I keep repeating, despite the risk of sounding boring and repetitive, that regarding AI, we need well-crafted, well-implemented, visionary regulations. Currently, all kinds of information can be obtained by kids, and it is subject to little regulation. Of course, no information provided by books, teachers, or schools is by no means objectively correct, but at least the means and people providing the info can be held accountable. Why wouldn’t we have the same kind of accountability for tech companies and algorithms as well? Surely we collectively need to make algorithm work in our kids’ favor to continue having nuanced, smart and meaningful conversations.
This is an ongoing debate that does not appear to be settled soon. We will all continue to have different approaches and takes while the journey continues. Regulations, accountability measures, and vigilant monitoring will never stop being crucial roles in ensuring a harmonious co-growth. However, I believe the most powerful tool at our individual disposal remains open and honest conversations. Keep having these conversations with your kids! By engaging in dialogue, we will continue to empower our children with the cognitive and critical skills necessary to discern what's right or wrong on their own. And then, by implementing well-thought-out regulations, we will make sure the kids are alright.

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