The future’s here. But are we ready?
By Parent Zone CEO and founder Vicki Shotbolt.
In 1953, a Californian local newspaper ran a prophetic headline: ‘There’ll Be No Escape in Future From Telephones’.
The article reported a speech given by the president of the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company, Mark R. Sullivan. He said:
‘Just what form the future telephone will take is, of course, pure speculation. Here is my prophecy: in its final development, the telephone will be carried about by the individual, perhaps as we carry a watch today. It probably will require no dial or equivalent and I think the users will be able to see each other, if they want, as they talk. Who knows but it may actually translate from one language to another?’
This foresight seems extraordinary – given telephones at the time were hard-wired to the wall, only available in black, and weighed the same as a bag of sugar.
By contrast, modern futurists have a plethora of new technology on which to base their predictions, including artificial intelligence (AI), quantum computing, and virtual and augmented realities. (Not to mention my personal favourite, flexible batteries – a seemingly dull technology with the potential to radically change healthcare and e-textiles). There are others, and they all point to the same thing.
Pace of change is accelerating
Technological advances happen exponentially. In other words, advances build on each other and, as they do so, progress gets faster. Great news if you can’t wait for the next big thing. Quite tough, though, if you’re trying to help families stay ahead of the curve – which is what Parent Zone’s been trying to do since 2008.
As we approach the next phase of digital progress, it’s going to be even more complicated for families.
Teaching a child about digital footprints, posting photos and leaving comments is one thing. A conversation around AI relationship chatbots is something else entirely.
AI is flooding the market
According to news reports, Christmas may soon see a host of smart toys hitting shops, including AI-powered soft toys that can chat with their young owners.
This new generation of toys will learn from interactions with children, adapt to their surroundings and even provide customised story telling. Imagine the personal identifying information a younger user might share with a teddy bear that can talk back.
AI is by no means the only new frontier. Virtual immersive experiences are already part of some children’s lives. With them come new safety questions for families. The most obvious of which is probably, 'what are you doing in that headset?'
It’s always been difficult for parents to supervise devices designed to be personal and even intimate. VR takes them to an immersive space that is, by definition, beyond the reach of their parents. Unless, of course, their parents choose to join them.
None of this need fill us with doom
This should remind us that as technology changes at pace, support and information needs to keep up.
Parents face a digital world that’s going to look profoundly different to the one they’ve just about gotten used to. At the very moment parents have started to know enough about messaging apps, social media, gaming and all the other things that are part of family life, it’s all going to move forward.
This changing digital world is going to bring new challenges, new tools, and new questions.
Through their international network of youth ambassadors and their own user testing, they’ve provided a glimpse into AI chatbot apps for people who might not have tried them.
In doing so, they’ve flagged more questions than answers.
How will parents give consent to their children using AI, particularly when it’s embedded into existing services? What guardrails are needed to ensure AI chatbots don’t engage in sexualised or high risk behaviours? What data is being collected and how do existing privacy notices apply in an AI world?
There is no time to relax
In the weeks and months ahead, Parent Zone will be following the emergence of new technologies, listening closely to the voices of young people. That army of early adopters (aka, children) will test the boundaries of new tech. They will challenge us all to keep up.
We’ll be working hard to make sure we’re providing parents, and the people who support them, with the information they need. Our hypothesis is that what’s coming is going to require as big an education push as was needed when the internet first went ‘mobile’.
This new wave of technology is coming just as the Online Safety Act becomes law. That legislation was drafted when consumer AI was in its infancy and already feels out of date.
The worry is that when it finally becomes law, families will breathe a sigh of relief, feeling a little bit safer in a more regulated digital world. In truth, alongside the wave of tools that will be provided by companies to ensure they are complying with the new regime, there will be a new era of technology for families to get to know.
In other words, there’s no time to relax. On the contrary. The future is here and we’re not really ready.
Is AI going to scupper the Online Safety Bill before it’s even got off the ground? Listen to the Tech Shock podcast