Artificial Intelligence

AI ethics for children: digital natives on how to protect future generations

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AI ethical guidelines are needed to protect future generations.

AI ethical guidelines are needed to protect future generations. Image: Pexels.

Seth Bergeson
Project Fellow, Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, World Economic Forum LLC

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  • Artificial intelligence brings many benefits but as with any rapidly advancing technology we need ethical frameworks to protect society.
  • Special precautions are necessary to safeguard children and young people from potential harm.
  • The World Economic Forum's AI Youth Council aims to help create a set of ethical guidelines to protect and empower the next generation.

Children and young people are growing up in an increasingly digital age, where technology pervades every aspect of their lives. From robotic toys and social media to the classroom and home, artificial intelligence (AI) is a ubiquitous part of daily life. It's vital therefore that ethical guidelines protect them and ensure they get the best from this emerging technology.

Generation Z, who have grown up with AI, are uniquely placed to offer an insight into the potential issues of AI targeted at children and help create governance guidelines. With that in mind the World Economic Forum has set up the AI Youth Council, a global diverse group comprising young people interested in AI.

Members serve as part of the Generation AI project community and have been central to the creation of the Artificial Intelligence for Children Toolkit, published 29 March 2022. The AI Youth Council is designed to bring together young people from 14 to 21 years of age worldwide to discuss AI ethics and governance.

Raised in an era defined by the internet

Angelica Sirotin

Born between 1996 and 2012, Generation Z is recognized as the digital native generation. We were raised in an era defined by the internet, a time characterized by massive digitalization: social networks were launched, new technologies were created, and AI began its cross-industry debut.

As a result, Gen Z evolved alongside technology, which impacted our childhood in multiple dimensions. With social media, our methods of interaction changed. Instant connectivity translated to spending time with friends 24/7. We easily absorbed new tech trends, and our education was augmented by the integration of new software.

Similarly, born between 2013-2024, Generation Alpha, the first true AI native generation, is experiencing the effects of AI right now. Kids seamlessly interact with AI chatbots and smart toys, use of IoT devices is second nature, and they are used to real-time information access. The effects of AI on childhood are evident: it makes kids crave optimized experiences and hyper-connectivity, whether at home, in school or with friends.

Learn from my generation’s experiences

Jianyu Gao, Columbia University, BS in Computer Science, USA

I was raised on an unregulated internet with minimal literacy in privacy and safety, and the adults around me didn’t know how to educate me to protect myself because they were just as ignorant as I was. I did stay out of danger because I knew what I was doing – I was lucky, but too many other children were not. The internet has given us the opportunity to connect with people around the world who would otherwise be out of reach, but has also exposed children to disturbing content, harmful ideologies, brainwashing communities and social circles, cyberbullies and online stalkers, predators, or other dangerous elements who might not have had access to them in real life.

As we transition into a post-pandemic world that not only lives with the internet but lives on the internet, I reflect on my childhood as a girl with a laptop with worries for the future, but also with the resolve to do better for the youth that will grow up with AI. If we expect AI to be just as human as we are, then we must learn from my generation’s experiences growing up with technologies such as the internet and prepare for the prospect that AI will not always learn from the best of us.

Personalisation will be key to growth

Guido Putignano, Bachelor of Engineering and Biomedical Engineering, Politecnico di Milano

One of the first times I got in contact with technology was when I was 12. I went to the shop and I saw strange objects that could make you go into other dimensions. At that time, these devices were a one-hour distraction after my evening homework. From the beginning, I remember that technology being harmful to me. I wasted many days watching videos without being intentional about what I was learning. When I turned 16, I started to use these devices proactively. I started making these devices work for me, rather than the opposite.

I think that the best way to predict the future is to create it yourself. I am an optimist, and I think that personalisation and high-speed connectivity will make anything far better than it is today. In this case, AI systems go from being objects to being subjects. One example is in the fields of education and healthcare. Imagine how awesome it would be to have an AI system that could help you personalise many parts of your life and be at the centre of your growth. That system could track thousands of parameters, making astonishingly accurate predictions of your future self. Those opportunities will be a reality in the future.

Enable greater digital access

Joy Fakude, University of Johannesburg, South Africa

Personally, growing up in South Africa, technology didn’t have that great of an impact in my life because I didn’t have access to it. The closest I came to a laptop was a toy laptop where I practised maths questions, English sentence construction and played some games. Then I advanced to my first cell phone – a BlackBerry which I thought was the coolest thing on planet Earth. I then had access to the internet and social media, however access to WiFi became a serious problem and unfortunately that is the reality for a lot of South African youngsters today.

Not having access to data – never mind smart phones or laptops – in a world that is speeding into a digital era, many South African teens are left behind not even knowing what AI is or what a digital footprint is, or not even knowing how to “protect your data”. My biggest concern for future generations of South Africans is that the rapid developments of AI technologies leave them stuck in the mud. That they aren’t taught and because they aren’t taught can’t adapt and, according to Darwin’s theory of evolution, don’t survive.

Form genuine online connections

Grace Knickrehm, USA

Born in 2003, my childhood was situated in the transitional stage from floppy disks and BlackBerry phones to social media powerhouses and streaming services. Most of my early interaction with technology was limited to my Sony camera and Nintendo S4. By the time I was 11, I relented to peer pressure and created an Instagram account. As I pondered how to use my new platform, it seemed natural to present the version of myself that fit my current interests. I used the profile “Gracie Dancer” to perform self-choreographed dance routines or rave about my new tap shoes. “Gracie Singer” was where I posted all my off-pitched covers of the latest pop songs.

But what was on the surface an apparently innocuous search for a sense of community began affecting me in a way I didn’t expect. As my interests evolved, I felt I was wrong for wanting to try different things. The uncertainty of not knowing who there was behind the screen made me feel as if though I was constantly being watched and judged. I began to fear mistakes at a time in my life when they should have been the most welcomed.

While technology has undeniable potential, I worry that the coming generation of children are growing up in a society where we are understood by others solely through our internet personas. Genuine relationships, interests, and activities will come second to keeping up the illusion of perfection, which so often means conformity.

Take action on minimizing risks

Ecem Yilmazhaliloglu from Turkey, studying at Stanford University

As the last generation to learn navigating bulky, old system units in computer lessons at school and the first generation to grow up having a Facebook profile, I belong to what I’d like to call the “transition generation”. As the new technologies – social media, touch screens, cloud storage systems, and AI – rapidly made their way into our world and our homes, we learned to adapt and experiment though trial and error, as there was no previous generation to show us the ropes.

When I got my first computer and opened up my first social media profile at eight, to play online games with my school friends, none of us thought about the consequences of our actions. Starting to engage in these technologies with the purest of intentions, in our attempt to fulfill the basic human need to socialize, to connect, we made ourselves vulnerable to the dangers that lurked in the technology’s shadows. The world has since realized its mistake in being unprepared against these dangers, but many of us had already become victims of catfishing, hacking, and even stalking.

While technology offered us many benefits there was always equal amounts of risk involved. Having learnt this in the past decade, both adults and children, it is our responsibility to provide guidance, protect the next generations and help navigate these technologies responsibly and for the good of all. It is our job to take action on minimizing the risks and maximizing the benefits, and provide the necessary wisdom and support, which we, the “transition generation,” lacked.

Harness AI responsibly

Kathleen Esfahany, Computer Science & Neurology, MIT, USA

I was born in 2000 to two computer scientists. Although technological innovation dramatically changed my life with each passing year, the shift into a technology-filled world felt entirely natural to me. The phenomenon of mirrored growth helped cement my identity as a digital native: for much of my childhood, each milestone in my own cognitive development was mirrored by technological advances and a deepening immersion in technology as an educational and social tool.

As my curiosity about the world grew, online news and social media proliferated, making it possible for me to follow events and connect with others across the globe. I can also thank my parents, who used their expertise on computers to help me understand the seemingly magical devices around me, empowering me to think about how to use technology for my own purposes and create technology of my own.

Today’s youth are growing up with rapid advances in AI. Already, we are seeing how the unprecedented efficiency and personalization of AI-powered technology can elevate today’s youth’s ability to learn, form personal relationships, and create joy. To optimize it for children’s safety and emotional well-being, I believe it is critical that AI-powered technology is designed so that it can match the diverse needs and abilities found throughout childhood development. My hope is that the combination of well designed AI-powered technology for youth and educational programs about AI will empower and inspire today’s youth to harness AI responsibly to bring to life their visions for the future.

Related topics:
Artificial IntelligenceFourth Industrial Revolution
Raised in an era defined by the internetLearn from my generation’s experiencesPersonalisation will be key to growthEnable greater digital accessForm genuine online connectionsTake action on minimizing risksHarness AI responsibly

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