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Is AI coming for our kids? Why the latest wave of pop-cultural tech anxiety should come as no surprise

Is AI coming for our kids? Why the latest wave of pop-cultural tech anxiety should come as no surprise
M3GAN and Cady Violet McGraw in 'M3GAN'. Image: M3GAN / Supplied

As artificial intelligence becomes mainstream, its infiltration into children’s lives is causing tremendous anxiety.

The global panic around AI’s co-option of children’s play and cultures has manifested unpredictably. Earlier this year, a Swiss comedian created a film trailer for an imagined remake of the beloved children’s story Heidi using the AI tool Gen-2. Heidi’s more than 25 film and television retellings (including the most famous 1937 version starring Shirley Temple) are key to cultural archetypes of childhood innocence. The viral AI-generated version sparked headlines for being a godless abyssnightmare fuel and absolutely soulless and detached from humanity.

This isn’t the first time AI has been used to re-imagine representations of childhood through the creation of cultural artefacts. Researchers trained a deep learning algorithm using children’s books by Dr Seuss, Maurice Sendak and others, with the resulting storybook images described as an apocalyptic nightmare and visions from hell.

When a technology worker used ChatGPT and Midjourney to create a children’s book, he received death threats.

M3GAN and AI dolls

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

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

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

“If a memory is implanted into an android’s brain, a ‘personal’ memory of a childhood that never happened, then isn’t that memory a real thing to the android? The android can’t tell the difference. It feels real. At a certain point, what is or is not ‘real’ is irrelevant. This is when things get unsettling, and The Artifice Girl sits in that very unsettling place.”

AI tools sit uncomfortably with our imaginings of childhood. The constellation of play, games, stories and toys that constitute children’s social worlds is symbolic of innocence, naivety and freedom from the darkest burdens of adult life.

Childhood studies link mythologies of freedom and innocence to faith in humanity. When AI tools pervert children’s culture, they spark our deepest fears about AI’s inhuman modes of intelligence. AI’s ability to mimic human creators, while hallucinating and twisting reality, gives us reason to worry.

The long history of childhood techno-phobia

Cultural anxieties about AI’s infiltration of children’s culture continue a long history of pop cultural preoccupations with dangerous interactions between children and technologies that cannot be trusted.

With Poltergeist (1982), the world was enthralled by five-year-old Carol Anne’s haunting statement, “They’re here…” She was listening to poltergeists through the family’s television.

This resonated with parents concerned with children’s screen time, as well as video gamesDungeons and Dragons and Satanic ritual abuse. Carol Anne’s television fixation reflects the terrifying potential of technology to unsettle family life. DM 

This story was first published on The Conversation. Lisa M. Given is a Professor of Information Sciences & Director, Social Change Enabling Impact Platform at RMIT University. Jessica Balanzategui is a Senior Lecturer in Media at RMIT University. Sarah Polkinghorne is a Research Fellow in Social Change at RMIT University.

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