‘Alexa, are you turning my kid into a brat?’
It's cool, but will it teach your kid manners? Credit: David Parry/PA Images

Today’s teenagers have been nicknamed ‘iGen’ because they’re the first generation to grow up with smartphones (which appears to be having a dramatic effect on their behaviour and mental health).

But what about the generation after iGen? The post-post-millennials? What will we call them? My suggestion is ‘AI-Gen’ – because they’ll be the first generation whose childhood will be shaped by interaction with artificially intelligent devices.

Though smartphones have digitalised the social lives of the young and not-so-young, the communication that this technology mediates is still between actual human beings. But what happens when computers become smart enough to join in the conversation?

It’s already happening of course. Thanks to advances in natural language processing, computer systems that interact verbally with their users are getting better all the time. Indeed, such devices are becoming quite common in people’s homes – and therefore in the lives of children.

Writing for MIT Technology Review, Rachel Metz wonders what effect this is going to have on childhood development:

“When it comes to digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, my four-year-old niece Hannah Metz is an early adopter. Her family has four puck-like Amazon Echo Dot devices plugged in around her house—including one in her bedroom—that she can use to call on Alexa at any moment.

“‘Alexa, play It’s Raining Tacos,” she commanded on a recent sunny afternoon, and the voice-controlled helper immediately complied…

“Giggling and clapping, Hannah danced around the room. I think this ability to get music on demand is neat, too, and I didn’t want to be rude, so I danced with her. But at the same time I was wondering what it’s going to mean for her to grow up with computers as servants.”

For decades we’ve worried about the threat that artificial intelligence (AI) poses to our dominion. What if computers get smarter than us and decide to take over? But what if we’ve got it all about-face, and the real threat is the sheer servility of AI?

“It’s a little worrisome. Leaving aside the privacy implications of kids telling an Internet-connected computer all kinds of things, we don’t know much about how this kind of interaction with artificial intelligence and automation will affect how children behave and what they think about computers. Will they become lazy because it’s so easy to ask Alexa and its peers to do and buy things? Or jerks because many of these interactions compel you to order the technology around? (Or both?)”

By artificial intelligence we’re not talking about true intelligence, let alone consciousness – i.e. so-called ‘strong AI’. Speaking rudely to a digital assistant is in itself about as morally significant as giving your car a kick if it won’t start in the morning. However, the progress being made on ‘weak AI’ is such that the semblance of personhood is becoming evermore convincing.

Children are already getting confused:

“I wasn’t sure if Hannah knew whether Alexa is human. So I asked, and this is what she told me: Alexa is ‘a kind of robot’ who lives in her house, and robots, she reasoned, aren’t people. But she does think Alexa has feelings, happy and sad. And Hannah says she would feel bad if Alexa went away. Does that mean she has to be nice to Alexa? Yes, she says, but she’s not sure why.”

Saying please and thank you to a robot isn’t necessary, but it is – for children especially – good practice. If the tech companies are smart they will develop AI ‘personalities’ ‘who’ insist on being asked nicely.

When it comes to teaching children good manners, expanding their vocabulary or merely keeping them company, AI systems are likely to have super-human levels of patience and resolution.  And that presents a further danger: which is that where human care-givers lack the time, the confidence or (sadly, in some cases) the love, they will let the digital babysitter take over.

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