The AI Nanny In a Baby’s Future

From a Wall Street Journal essay by Dana Suskind headlined “The AI Nanny in Your Baby’s Future”:

Imagine being the parent of an infant or toddler a decade from now. Most aspects of child rearing won’t have changed, but others may well be transformed by the use of artificial intelligence. AI devices are likely to become electronic babysitters, just as previous generations of parents adopted television and video games as tools for lightening their caregiving duties.

AI teddy bears could respond in personalized ways to baby coos and toddler questions. Computer-assisted “nannies” who never tire of reading the same book over and over would make bedtime a breeze. Advanced nursery versions of Alexa could sing and teach favorite songs on demand, play games and even deduce why a baby is crying.

Like innovations of the past generation, these tools will leverage technology to engage children and save parents time and stress. Unlike previous tools, however, there is reason to worry that, because of their sophistication in mimicking human behavior, AI childcare devices may alter the way that infants and toddlers process their experience of the world.

This is because of the remarkable way in which our brains develop during the first years of life. Human infants arrive in the world a bit underdone. A likely evolutionary reason is that if a typical fetus spent any longer developing in utero, its head would simply be too large to deliver safely. So nature had to compromise: Babies are born after 40 weeks, but the 40-week-old baby brain still has a lot of growing left to do. Most of that growth occurs at a breathtaking pace during the first two years of life; about one million new neural connections form every second. The brain grows to about 80% of its adult size by a child’s third birthday.

This provides a short window of time in which to set up a child for success in life by nurturing their foundational brain development. It is at the heart of why humans are the most intelligent, creative and productive of all species.

What babies need most to optimize this early period of rapid advance is rich conversation, what developmental psychologists call “serve and return” interactions. This comes naturally to parents interacting with their children and is known to fuel children’s growth in cognitive and emotional skills.

Before now, this necessary ingredient could only be provided by a caring adult. Despite what marketers might have you believe, classical music, educational TV and Baby Einstein videos cannot create meaningful new neural connections in a baby’s brain. They are not contingently responsive—there’s no back and forth.

Emerging AI tools change all that. They have been built in our image, much the way human brains are built. They consist of neural networks of complex connections, forged from massive data inputs. ChatGPT receives that necessary input in the form of large language models, while children receive it in the form of loving interaction with adults. That line will be blurred when we supplement brain-building human interaction with automated alternatives.

It’s not hard to understand why parents would want to leverage technological innovation to ease their family burdens. Child rearing, particularly in the early years, is an all-consuming task. AI assistance could be transformational for overwhelmed parents, just as washing machines and other appliances revolutionized caretaking in the middle of the last century, freeing women to enter the workforce in droves.

Why not use AI nannies to engage human babies in the kind of back-and-forth conversation that builds brains? It could have profoundly positive developmental impacts, increasing the frequency and consistency of brain-building moments during the period when children’s brains are most “plastic”—that is, most capable of rewiring themselves based on what they encounter. The technology could be a boon to children who otherwise might experience developmental delays. It could help to unlock cognitive potential and close achievement gaps.

But we must proceed with caution. New technologies can shape the architecture of our brains. When early humans began to use tools to make markings and patterns, new neurons were activated that ultimately enabled the brain to use the visual cortex in an entirely new way—to read and write. In our own day, a January report in JAMA Pediatrics showed that habitual social media use is producing changes in how adolescent brains respond to social rewards.

There is much that we still don’t know about foundational brain development. Introducing young brains to responsive AI may alter them in fundamental ways we can’t anticipate. If we provide the wrong sort of input or interaction, we may distort cognitive development in far-reaching ways.

Consider one recent revelation in neuroscience. Researchers have long understood that more conversations between adults and children leads to advances in children’s language and vocabulary development. But studies in the last decade have unveiled a crucial mechanism underlying this relationship: The brain waves of children and their human caregivers literally sync up when they are trying to communicate or play together. This has also been observed in adults doing collaborative activities like singing or dancing in groups and communicating face to face. They experience similar brain activity in the same brain regions, and the more their brain waves match, the more productive the outcome.

In children and their caregivers, that phenomenon happens particularly in the prefrontal cortex, where learning takes place, as a team of Princeton researchers reported in 2020. Further research with young children has shown that this “neural synchrony” boosts vocabulary acquisition as well as social learning and problem-solving skills. Artificial intelligence, though able to engage in back-and-forth exchanges, lacks the physical human brain necessary for neural synchrony. We simply do not yet know what it means for the developing human brain to experience one without the other.

Resiliency—which is just as important as cognition when it comes to lifelong achievement—is another skill that is almost entirely dependent on early, foundational brain development. When a child encounters a variety of experiences early in life and is guided through those experiences by a loving adult, they learn how to respond adaptively.

Resiliency—which is just as important as cognition when it comes to lifelong achievement—is another skill that is almost entirely dependent on early, foundational brain development. When a child encounters a variety of experiences early in life and is guided through those experiences by a loving adult, they learn how to respond adaptively.

Research also shows that adults with positive memories of receiving lots of care from their parents display higher levels of “grit” and ambition. But what does it mean for a child to grow attached to an automaton, if parents cede some fundamental responsibilities? “There is a danger that this could have a serious effect on their social and emotional development,” wrote Noel Sharkey and Amanda Sharkey, researchers at the University of Sheffield, in a paper in the journal Ethics and Information Technology in 2021.

We cannot put the AI genie back in its bottle, nor should we. But without better understanding, we risk squandering the capacity for development that resides in the first few years of life—and risk disrupting our own evolutionary fabric.

Dr. Dana Suskind is co-director of the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health and the founding director of the Pediatric Cochlear Implant Program at the University of Chicago.

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