Raising Children in the Era of Artificial Intelligence – Part One


We live in extraordinary times. New advances in technology such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and Big Data allow our society to understand the world that surrounds us in new and unprecedented ways. In our pockets, we hold computers more powerful than those that sent Apollo 11 to the Moon. We have inherited a future both exciting and disconcerting at the same time.

While western media is full of stories told by adults about the future of AI - things like self-driving cars, virtual assistants, and robotic caretakers for senior citizens - today’s children likely imagine an even wilder set of prospects. As these new tools come into use, we wonder if the AI driven systems in our lives will be effective, trustworthy and reliable - both for ourselves and for tomorrow’s generation? How can we work towards a future where children’s creativity and curiosity is combined with adults’ wisdom, maturity and duty of care, to deliver the best possible future for all? How can we develop responsible AI for our children?

“People say that AI is the next electricity. I think of it as the next mirror,” says Jonnie Penn, a Google Fellow and AI researcher based at the University of Cambridge. “AI allows us to see ourselves in unusual new ways by revealing subtle aspects of the relationships that exist between us and the world around us. As with the mirror, these reflections will tempt out strange changes in our behaviour.” Already we have seen that AI raises some new and challenging ethical question. Especially when it comes to AI’s impact on children, we must ask how these system could shape the way we interact, such as by undermining personal privacy standards or by over-engineering our daily social dynamics. “Ask the overly indulgent client of a cosmetic surgeon if the system they sought to optimise remains receptive to the task,” Penn says, “At some stage, restraint becomes a virtue.”

Robotic hand touching human hand

Let’s start by understanding how big the AI phenomenon really is. What comes through strongly from the research we’ve carried out at PwC is just what a potential game changer this technology could be. Our analysis suggests it could contribute up to an extra $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030. Within this global growth, we estimate a 10.3% increase of UK GDP as a result of using AI – the equivalent of an additional £232bn – making it one of the biggest commercial opportunities in today’s fast-changing economy.

Yet, as we have seen in earlier historical periods of profound technological change, along with the tales of great promise there comes the potential for disruption and challenges for those in society who are not well positioned to benefit. Without adequate protections in place, AI has the potential to disenfranchise as well as empower citizens.. Our work suggests that around 30% of current UK jobs are at risk of being automated by the early 2030s.

This is where the interests of children become critical. We must ensure that the systems we aspire to build will set them up for future success. “Above all, we should nurture critical thought and avoid over-fitting our educational techniques to superficial performance metrics that resemble an industrial factory,” cautions Penn. “There is more to education than that. Nature engineered us to face a certain level of indeterminacy.”

As emerging technologies like AI speed up change in our daily environment, our responsibility to foster children’s curiosity and creativity will become key to preparing them for an unpredictable future. “If AI is the next mirror,” says Penn when asked about this process, “then we should not underestimate the value of self-esteem. Rather than pressure children to look, act, or think in a fixed way, we should ask them to challenge the systems that underlie our thinking. Only that will bring true leadership.”

Look out for the final part of this two-part blog series next week.

By Maria Axente - PwC AI Programme Driver, with input from Jonnie Penn, University of Cambridge (www.jonniepenn.com)

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Maria Axente

Responsible AI Lead, PwC United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)7711 562365