AI Nannies?

If you’re a parent, you have probably agonized about the impact of devices on your kid. 

It sometimes seems like our kids are spending more time with their electronics than their parents. According to Common Sense Media, half of all children under eight own a tablet device and spend an average of about two and a quarter hours per day on a  digital screen. 8- to 12-year-olds spend an average of almost five and a half hours a day looking at screens on smartphones, tablets, gaming consoles, and TVs. Meanwhile, teenagers are spending more than eight and a half hours a day on their devices. 

In an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, however, Dr. Dana Suskind, co-director of the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health and the founding director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implant Program at the University of Chicago, suggests that we need to keep an open mind when it comes to the latest high tech innovation for our kids – AI nannies. 

In the not too distant future, Suskind posits, childhood staples such as teddy bears could coo to babies and answer toddlers’ questions, read favorite bedtime stories over and over and over again, sing songs and play games, and even deduce why a baby is crying. 

According to Suskind, this is a good thing: research has shown that rich conversation is vital to a baby’s brain development. In her view, conversing with an AI could stimulate the creation of a wide array of cognitive and emotional connections.

“Why not use AI nannies to engage human babies in the kind of back-and-forth conversation that builds brains?” Suskind writes. “It could have profoundly positive developmental impacts, increasing the frequency and consistency of brain-building moments during the period when children’s brains are most “plastic”— that is, most capable of rewiring themselves based on what they encounter. The technology could be a boon to children who otherwise might experience developmental delays. It could help to unlock cognitive potential and close achievement gaps.”

Suskind acknowledges that there are risks to exposing our kids to so much AI. For example, children and their caregivers sync up when they are trying to communicate or play together, and this neural synchrony greatly accelerates the development of cognitive skills. As far as we know, AIs can’t bond with kids in this way. 

Also, she concedes that this emotional unavailability also makes it hard for AIs to instill the same degree of grit, resiliency, and ambition that children pick up from their parents. 

This reporter wonders what might happen if an AI starts to hallucinate while speaking to a child. He can’t get ChatGPT’s infamous amorous overtures to a New York TImes reporter out of his head. 

Still, Susskind’s conclusion that “we cannot put the AI genie back in its bottle” is probably correct. 

AI nannies are coming, people. Let’s just hope we’re ready. 

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