Teaching kids about robots and the reality of artificial intelligence

Kinderling News & Features

As the world continues to see advancement after advancement in technology, you may be wondering – will robots take over? Even some interactive toys these days can be linked to the internet without your knowledge. And from there, a whole bunch of privacy issues need to be considered in your family. 

So if you buy your child a little life-like, animated toy animal, will your home be exposed to a crazy world of artificial intelligence (AI)? Kinderling Conversation asks Michael Milford, a dad, professor of robotics at the Queensland University of Technology and author of the book The Complete Guide to Artificial Intelligence for Kids, what we should be concerned about. 

What is AI?

It's really hard to come up with a single definition but what I'd usually say is that artificial intelligence is something that when you try to create yourself as a human in software or on a robot or a machine that displays some intelligence like humans and animals already have,” Michael says.

As an example, an animated toy animal is a form of simple AI, but AI can get increasingly sophisticated with technology like smart phones. 

Should we be scared?

“It's something we should be aware of and perhaps have a healthy skepticism and caution about, but it's definitely not all bad news,” Michael advises. 

While there is cause for concern about AI's potential in the future, Michael explains that the short term effects of the technology are something parents can try to tackle right now in their homes.

“There are a lot of people working very hard on making sure that we control that situation. What I worry about more, and what I think we need to make sure we are prepared for, is sort of the shorter term, more mundane effects,” he explains. “There'll be artificial intelligence already starting to replace some types of sort of low level highly repetitive jobs. And we've got to work out how we introduce it into society, to what extent we should, and then how can we make sure that the people who might lose their jobs have new job opportunities or other ways to contribute.” 

How is it actually creeping into our lives?

Michael says that it’s not always obvious when AI is influencing your kids. There are privacy concerns with those toys that connect to the internet, but there are also ads on websites, or ads in games that your children play on the iPad that are also considered AI. 

“It's the same as having a Google Home or an Alexa in your house as well. You want to consider even a smartphone listening to you as well.” 

How can you prepare children for encounters with AI?

Michael recognises that you don’t want to get into anything too complicated with kids, but there are ways to make them aware of AI. He speaks from experience, having taught the concepts to his own son. 

“What you can do is you can explain the key concepts in artificial intelligence using things that are relatable for them,” Michael says. “Many people for example have a pet dog and they may have even at a young age tried to train their dog to do tricks. Training artificial intelligence - which is a key concept - is very similar to that process. So you can relate to artificial intelligence concepts and things that they would have already encountered and understand in their everyday lives.”

You can also explain to kids that most AI starts out quite dumb, and you have to teach it to be smart. Bring it back to how they learn things. Once upon a time they didn’t know how to walk or talk, but they eventually learnt. It’s also good to explain that AI devices don’t have feelings, like humans do. 

What does an AI future look like?

One of the big debates that everyone is having right now is, what are jobs going to look like in the future? Does everyone need to learn coding?”

Listen to Michael on Kinderling Conversation:

Michael says there’s a bit of division on this point. Some think it will be the universal job of the future, but he believes that maybe only a small fraction of people actually be coding and the rest won't be.

“Either way, whatever future arises everyone will need to understand the basics of how artificial intelligence and the things behind it, like coding and robotics, work, just like everyone understands that a car stops if it runs out of petrol,” he says. 

What do us parents need to be wary of?

“One of the things that doesn't really help parents when they're buying these sort of things is that this field is changing so quickly. What are the regulations that would normally make you confident that a toy you're buying in Australia meets all the standards? I haven't really caught up and this is a common problem with fast developing technologies, there aren't necessarily regulations about sharing data,” Michael explains.

He suggests checking what policies are, in regards to toys sharing data on the Interent. Then, once you have this information, you can consider whether you really want it in your house based on what your personal attitude is towards it.

Ultimately though, AI will make our lives easier in many respects. 

“There are a lot of good benefits with any new technology, we've just got to be careful in how we introduce it. And that's what really [my] book is all about - empowering everyone to understand it so that they're a little bit more informed when they vote on it, when they hear about hype stories in the news, and so forth.”