Artificial Intelligence for Kids Is the Hot New Toy Sensation

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Artificial intelligence is here, baby!

In the past five years, breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and speech recognition have given the devices around us — smartphones, computers, cars — the ability to engage in something approaching conversation….With such technology widely available, it was inevitable that artificial intelligence for children would arrive, too, and it is doing so most prominently in the pink, perky form of Mattel’s Hello Barbie. Produced in collaboration with ToyTalk, a San Francisco-based company specializing in artificial intelligence, the doll is scheduled to be released in November with the intention of hitting the lucrative $6 billion holiday toy market.

For adults, this new wave of everyday A.I. is nowhere near sophisticated enough to fool us into seeing machines as fully alive….But things are different with children, because children are different. Especially with the very young, ‘‘it is very hard for them to distinguish what is real from what is not real,’’ says Doris Bergen, a professor of educational psychology at Miami University in Ohio who studies play. The penchant to anthropomorphize — to believe that inanimate objects are to some degree humanlike and alive — is in no way restricted to the young, but children, who often favor magical thinking over the mundane rules of reality, have an especially rich capacity to believe in the unreal.

Fine: it’s artificial intelligence for six-year-olds. But you know what? Lots of adults also have a rich capacity to believe in the unreal. I will refrain from naming names in order to protect the guilty. In any case, if we can produce tolerable childlike AI in a bundle the size of a Barbie doll, how far are we from producing tolerable adult AI in a bundle the size of a PC? Five years? Probably too soon. Twenty years? It won’t take that long. But somewhere in the middle, say ten or fifteen years, we’ll all be talking merrily to our gadgets and mostly forgetting that they aren’t actually people.

That’s still not honest-to-God real AI, but it’s in the ballpark. We’ll be there by 2040.

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