Comment: AI is about to transform childhood; are parents ready?

Its uses — tutor, entertainer, companion — may be hard for parents to resist or look past its drawbacks.

By Tyler Cowen / Bloomberg Opinion

With the introduction of GPT-4 and Claude, artificial intelligence (AI) has taken another big step forward. GPT-4 is human-level or better at many hard tasks, a huge improvement over GPT-3.5, which was released only a few months ago.

Yet amid the debate over these advances, there has been very little discussion of one of the most profound effects of AI large language models: how they will reshape childhood.

In the future, every middle-class kid will grow up with a personalized AI assistant; so long as the parents are OK with that.

As for the children, most of them will be willing if not downright eager. When I was 4 years old, I had an imaginary friend who lived under the refrigerator, called (ironically) Bing Bing. I would talk to him and report his opinions to my parents and sister.

In the near future, such friends will be quite real, albeit automated, and they will talk back to our children as directly as we wish. Having an AI service for your child will be as normal as having a pet, except the AI service will never bite. It will be carried around in something like a tablet, though with a design that is oriented toward the AI.

Recent developments suggest that AI models can be both commoditized and customized more easily and cheaply than expected. So parents will be able to choose what kind of companion they want their kids to have; in contrast to the free-for-all of the internet. The available services likely will include education and tutoring, text or vocalizations of what the family pet might be thinking, dancing cartoon avatars and much more. Companies will compete to offer products that parents think will be good for their kids. Some of the AIs might even read bedtime stories (in fact, I’ve already heard some of them).

Many parents may be reluctant to let their kids become attached to an AI. But I predict that most families will welcome it. For one, parents will be able to turn off the connection whenever they wish. Simply clicking a button is easier than yanking an iPad out of a kid’s grasp.

Most of all, letting your kid have an AI companion will bring big advantages. Your child will learn to read and write much faster and better, and will do better in school. Or maybe you want your kid to master Spanish or Chinese, but you can’t afford an expensive tutor who comes only twice a week. Do you want your child to learn how to read music? The AI services will be as limited or as expansive as you want them to be.

It is an open question how quickly schools will embrace these new methods of learning. At some point, however, they will become part of the curriculum. Competitive pressures will make parents reluctant to withhold AI from their kids. Even if the AIs are not present in the classroom, some kids will use them to help do their homework, gaining a big advantage, and the practice will likely spread.

Of course children will use these AIs for purposes far beyond what their parents intend. They will become playthings, companions, entertainers and much more. When I was a kid, with no internet and mediocre TV, I created imaginary worlds in the dirt, or with simple household items, and my parents often had no clue. The AI services will become part of this model of spontaneous play, even if parents try to make them purely educational.

What about teenagers? Well, many parents may allow their kids to speak with AI therapists. It might be better than nothing, and perhaps better than many human therapists.

It is easy enough to imagine the problems. Socially conservative parents won’t be able to stop their kids from visiting friends whose AIs teach about sex education. Many kids may manage to “jailbreak” their AIs, getting them talking about sex and violence, even in an educational context (try Roman history). And while the rise of AI won’t necessarily increase inequality, it’s hard to argue that it won’t confer even more advantages on wealthy and middle-class kids.

But the biggest drawback might simply be that the AI services work too well, and kids become very attached to them, neglecting friends and family. They might be such good babysitters that parents won’t always pull the plug when they should. They might, in short, be the 21st century version of television.

What will it be like to grow up with such companions? Nobody really knows. But an entire generation is about to find out.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. He is co-author of “Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World.”

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