The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been nothing if not influential. The explosion of the superhero genre and the creation of cinematic universes were directly inspired by the MCU, and even Tony Stark’s JARVIS was a pop culture precursor to such real-life AI as Siri. The idea of responsive bots seemed far-fetched back in 2008, but now, almost a decade after the first MCU entry, digital assistants have become inescapable, especially to kids. Spider-Man: Homecoming, which opens today, is no exception, with the young web-slinger receiving an AI companion similar to JARVIS and named Karen. Karen, who just happens to be voiced by Jennifer Connelly, the wife of JARVIS-turned-Vision actor Paul Bettany, maintains a friendly relationship with Peter Parker. This depiction is important, because, as psychologists are starting to realize, how kids talk to AI affects their development.
Smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo account for 14 percent of households and kids are learning to interact with the technology alongside their parents. But while adults understand the difference between talking to people and machines, kids trying to master pro-social behavior end up transferring bad treatment of robots to other aspects of their life. Research shows that when Alexa and Google Home respond positively to rude demands, it teaches children that that behavior is acceptable in public, too. Combined with kids’ tendency to adopt harmful qualities from their favorite heroes, Marvel and DC need to accept the effects their characters have on young minds and act accordingly.
Fortunately, the new Spider-Man is friendlier than most of his super-powered peers and skewed younger. And, as such, he treats his tech like any young millennial should: with respect. Hopefully, kids will emulate his behavior towards Karen going forward. Here’s to hoping Spider-Man is the hero we need to make kids savvier and kinder in a tech-dominated world.