By Shaira Mohan
“Alexa, play the song The Wheels on the Bus”, I commanded the recent addition to our lives and the mounting pile of technological gizmos making the many shelves and drawers in the house burst at the seams.
I watched our almost year old toddler crawl purposefully towards the source of the music that had become his favourite tune to not just shake a leg but literally his entire body in excitement. If Alexa dared to not comply on occasion, my son would stare at me with eyes squinted akin to a CIA operative who had found evidence to implicate me in the crime of the century.
Watching this comedic performance unfold in front of me several times every day, I can’t help but marvel at the speed at which technology and its lightning-fast advancements are also swiftly advancing towards targeting next generations at the blink of an eye. Even as we are still using terms like “millennials” as buzzwords, the next generation — children as young as babies — are fast becoming the AI (Artificial Intelligence) targets of the fast-approaching future.
An example of this is the new wave of AI-enabled toys that are being launched in the market. German- grown doll Cayla is an internet-connected doll that uses voice recognition technology to chat and interact with children, transmitting data online to a voice analysis company. While manufacturing companies will always try and draw consumer attention to the educational and enhanced developmental aspects of such creations, the darker side of them (security and privacy threats) are known to us all too well. The likes of Blue Whale and Momo challenge online suicide games are parents’ new age nightmares and the lives destroyed by them certainly need no recap.
A friend narrated a horrific story just the other day of how her niece was watching a children’s TV show at home when a creepy figure appeared on the screen commanding the little girl to press a certain button in order to proceed. The mental trauma alone could be irreparable.
While it is expected that the advent of AI technology will eventually trickle down into the nitty gritty of our daily lives, a recent chat with the CEO of a globally reputed company also illuminated the fact that our future generations, currently crawling on all fours around us in a world with infinite number of jobs desiring infinite number of skill sets, would one day be faced with the inevitability of substantially slashed opportunities. In a world that would speak, talk and walk only AI and robots.
When we purchased a baby monitor for our newly born a few months ago, the only thing to debate was audio vs. both audio and visual. When my husband pointed out the security risk of having visuals of the baby being transmitted somewhere unknown in the vast and unknown corridors of the internet cloud, it was a quick decision made.
And then while browsing the very same world wide web today, I chanced upon “Loveys” – an AI – powered baby monitor that is basically like a FitBit for babies that sends health and other daily activity data from a device fitted on your baby to your phone or app wherever you might be. While the gadget was undoubtedly impressive, we felt it was too much too soon, even for an above average technology-using family like ours.
But this is already par for the course in the world of technology and AI today. The questions parents are grappling with remain the same: How much is too much and how much can we monitor? While some argue that AI-driven devices and robots like Alexa and Cosmo can inculcate good behaviour in children, others counter-argue that children subjected to such technology on a daily basis are expressing rude behaviour akin to bullying.
While the jury may be out on how good or bad the adoption of AI among young children may be, it is certainly and unequivocally the use of the data absorbed by these devices that should be our primary concern. The question we need to be asking first is where does this data that is collected through interaction with our children go? Cyber security laws are hazy at best as far as the internet is concerned. We should be able to have autonomy on the data collected by the devices we own and what we would like to do with it.
I am jolted out of my reverie by my baby tugging at my arm. I look down to see a tiny index finger swiping right repeatedly on the Fitbit device on my wrist. The look of concentration he wears transforms into a toothy grin when I tap him on his shoulder.
I will begin to worry again tomorrow. Today, in this moment, all I can do is surrender.