Is AI coming for our children? The latest wave of pop-cultural tech concerns should come as no surprise

As artificial intelligence enters the mainstream, its intrusion into children’s lives is causing great concern. The global panic surrounding AI’s co-optation of children’s play and cultures has unfolded unpredictably.

Earlier this year, the Swiss comedian created a movie trailer for Heidi’s fictional remake of the beloved children’s story using AI tool Gen-2.

More than 25 film and television retellings of Heidi (including the most famous 1937 version starring Shirley Temple) are key to the cultural archetype of childhood innocence. The viral AI-generated version generated headlines for being a godless abyss, terrifyingly fueled and utterly soulless and alien to humanity.

This is not the first time AI has been used to reimagine representations of childhood through the creation of cultural artifacts. Researchers Dr. Deep learning algorithms were trained using children’s books by Seuss, Morris Sendak and others, resulting in storybook images described as scenes from an apocalyptic nightmare and hell.

A tech worker received death threats when he used ChatGPT and Midjourney to create a children’s book.

M3GAN and AI dolls

One of the most successful horror films of 2022, M3GAN depicts the disturbing consequences of a sad girl’s friendship with an ultra-lifelike AI-powered doll.

A clip of M3GAN dancing (her face expressionless as her body mimics youth dance trends on social media) went viral to an extent the director called “unbelievable”. M3GAN strikes a cultural chord, embodying our uneasiness about how AI co-opts and subverts children’s culture.

Artifice Girl (2022) depicts an AI-generated nine-year-old girl designed to attract online predators, highlighting debates about AI ethics. Critic Sheila O’Malley compared it to Blade Runner (1982), asking:

If a memory is implanted into an android’s brain, a ‘personal’ childhood memory that never happened, isn’t that memory a real thing to the android? Android can’t tell the difference. It feels true. At a certain point, what is ‘real’ or not is irrelevant. That’s when things get uncomfortable and Artifice Girl sits in that very uncomfortable spot.

AI tools fit uneasily with our childhood imaginations. The constellation of play, games, stories, and toys that make up the social world of children symbolizes innocence, naivety, and freedom from the darkest burdens of adult life.

Childhood studies links myths of freedom and innocence with beliefs in humanity. When AI tools corrupt children’s culture, they instill our greatest fear of AI’s superhuman intelligence.

AI’s ability to mimic human creators, while disillusioning and distorting reality, gives us reason to worry.

A long history of childhood techno-phobia

Cultural anxiety about the intrusion of AI into children’s culture continues a long history of pop cultural preoccupation with dangerous interactions between children and technology that cannot be trusted.

With Poltergeist (1982), the world was captivated by five-year-old Carol Ann’s haunting statement, “They’re here…” as she listens to poltergeists through the family television.

It is also associated with parents concerned with children’s screen time, as well as with video games, Dungeons and Dragons, and satanic ritual abuse. Carol Ann’s television fixation reflects the frightening potential of technology to disrupt family life.

Read more: M3gan review: An animatronic doll out to destroy nuclear families – much to fans’ delight

Like M3GAN in Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic Frankenstein, a young girl is dangerously indoctrinated with tangible technology. In the 1931 film adaptation, we see Frankenstein’s monster meet seven-year-old Maria, who overcomes her initial shock, asks him to play, and meets an untimely end.

Come Play (2020) depicts a young Oliver who befriends a monster through an app, with disastrous screen-time consequences. Where Poltergeist imagines the consequences of too much television, Come Play echoes parents’ fears of losing their children to smartphones and gaming, such as Minecraft.

AI is a lightning rod for fear

M3GAN’s embodied AI reflects the current wave of concerns. In May, AI companies made headlines when they linked AI to possible human extinction. While experts have dismissed these claims, a significant threat perception of AI reflects the horrors of the AI ​​depicted in the film.

An example is 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in which HAL 9000 takes over a spaceship to protect the mission. Many other films depict out-of-control AI, including Westworld (1973), Tron (1982), Terminator (1984), The Matrix (1999), I.Robot (2004), Moon (2009), X Machine (2014). and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). These films resonate today, as AI is poised to replace human workers.

The idea that we could create autonomous technology that could wipe out humanity is what researchers call a “moral panic.” It is a contagious fear, promoted by the media, and threatens social stability. New media often give voice to youth, challenging norms and exacerbating generational divides, frequently contributing to moral panics.

While filmmakers highlight the potential dangers of AI, today’s tools struggle to create consistent knitting patterns or recipes that aren’t toxic. AI’s real dangers to children include its ability to convince children of misinformation and repeat social biases. The climate change implications of AI are troubling, as are the lack of transparency and privacy concerns.

We should not be carried away by moral panic, but attention should be paid to children’s use and understanding of AI. UNICEF is incorporating children’s rights into its global AI strategy, and the World Economic Forum has released an AI toolkit for children.

While horror stories illuminate our anxieties about children’s use of technology and our ideas about children’s play and culture, we don’t need to recoil in fear.

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