How To Prepare Your Kids For AI, The Singularity, And Other Future Issues

It's not "The Terminator" or "Westworld," but it's still an issue.

by Chris O'Shea
Originally Published: 
cody the robosapien

The future is sprinting to your doorstep. Machine-learning expert, artificial intelligence (AI) specialist, and author of The Curiosity Cycle, Jonathan Mugan, wants your children to be prepared for the robot-fueled world ahead. You saw The Terminator — you know what happens when you sit around, playing arcade games and listening to Use Your Illusion II instead of preparing for SkyNet.

But Mugan isn’t worried about Arnold. He’s not even concerned about a Westworld-like event where sentient creations rise up and go all snap-snap, spurt-spurt on their makers. Rather, he’s worried that humans will be made useless when “the singularity” — that oh-so-fun point when computers surpass humans — appears.

Tech already makes people feel inferior (“Alexa, how do I tie my shoes?”). What skills should you be teaching children to have a fighting chance in a future dominated by robots? Mugan says it’s about honing the skills that robots won’t have, namely curiosity and creativity. And showing your kids where the off-switch is usually located won’t hurt either.

Understanding The Coming Threat

Yes, the singularity sounds something out of a mediocre 80s sci-fi film. Mugan says the first part in preparing for it is understanding that it’s not some leather-jacket wearing, Saturday-afternoon-movie fiction, but an inevitable fact.

“I think of the singularity as the point when computers become smarter than humans,” explains Mugan. “They get smarter every year, and we stay about the same, so they will pass us at some point.” We’re already heading in this direction. Think about how many tasks robots already take on. They tell you what route to take home, what investments you make, what fast food is within closest proximity to your mouth hole.

“As robots start to run more of society, we humans may no longer understand how large parts of our environment work,” says Mugan. “This scenario seems both impossible and inevitable.”

The faster you accept this, the better. Because if you feel like the singularity is a joke, so will your kids. And they’ll be more dependent on AI than any other previous generation.

What Your 4-Year-Old Has That A Robot Doesn’t

Acceptance is the first step. Mugan says fostering your kid’s curiosity and creativity is the vital next step towards preparing them for the future.

“Tech does 2 things: it makes our environment change faster, and it gives us more options,” says Mugan. “Curiosity will be necessary to keep up with tech’s changes. Creativity will allow a child to leverage the additional options provided by technology to change the environment.”

In other words, Robots might be able to lift thousands of pounds, perform complex computations in milliseconds, and call up the sum of human knowledge, but it’ll take a long time until they’re able to truly create. That, and the curiosity needed to reach such creativity, will separate your children from the circuit-board brained.

Arming Them With The Skills

You’re already teaching your kids to be curious and creative. That’s not the point. It’s about how you do it that will give them the mental agility to stand a chance.

  • Talk Through The Environment. This is that old parenting trick of making the extraordinary look ordinary. Example: The grocery store might not seem exciting, but there was a time when humans had to grow all their food and/or hunt and kill animals in order to avoid starvation. Now you simply walk into a store and buy food (plus whatever Twinkies are classified as). This line of thought allows them to realize things were not always this way. There are beginnings, endings and evolutions. Normalizing this type of thinking is important.
  • Show Them What Hucksters Look Like. Mugan says you should begin to teach kids to understand when they’re being tricked and how it’s being done (because robots will be crafty buggers). He uses TV as an example: “Point out what tricks advertisers use to get you to buy products,” he says. “Have your child point out the ones he or she thinks they are using.” Like, “They’re playing fun music and showing bright colors to make this look more entertaining!” Or, “Do bikini models make burgers actually taste better?”
  • Search The Space Of Possible Actions. In general, Mugan says that the right kind of curiosity to deal with what’s ahead comes from “searching the space of possible actions.” Kids often stumble when faced with a problem because they’re trying to jump right to the answer. Counteracting this impulse will be key in the coming decades.

The Bottom Line

The singularity might not happen for many, many years. But, you already see AI encroaching on daily life — taking jobs and lowering wages. Maybe robots will even fight for your entertainment, like in that Hugh Jackman movie where he’s not Wolverine. The point is, your kids may not be leading a resistance of human freedom fighters, but they still need to be armed with nimble thinking to set them apart from computer. Or else it’s game over.

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