Outsmarted By Artificial Intelligence

by Alma A. Hromic

September 23, 2002


Spooky conversation. Man sitting at a table across from a snub-nosed, blonde doll with a half-smile on its face.

Man: Cindy?

Doll: I'm here.

Man: Do you want to play school?

Doll: Yes!

Man: Can you read the word?

Doll: D-O-G, Dog.

Man: Very good!

Doll: That's because I have the best teacher in the world!

Is the hair on the back of your neck rising yet? This is a new toy, a doll who "sees" and "hears" and "talks back," to be released in September, according to a report from The New York Times. But it doesn't end here. The toy maker concludes his conversation with the doll in a manner which frankly freaks me out.

Man: Cindy?

Doll: I'm here.

Man: I love you.

Doll: I love you!

In ten or twenty years, say toy manufacturers, toys will "routinely have this technology" -- but we are hardly talking about toys any more. We are talking about full-fledged AI. And while I am far from your average Luddite who would raise the sign against the evil eye and take this doll to the exorcist, I do have issues with aiming this at children.

Put simply, children are a captive market (there will always be a demand for toys) and one which is notoriously easily led. Big business being what it is, when enough money is poured into this project it will start having ramifications like the child screaming for a hamburger if the doll says, "You are hungry. You need a burger and fries. You need a soda." Or demanding a specific brand of sneakers if the doll says, "All the cool kids are wearing <insert brand name> this year." If the parents can't afford to keep up with the brand-name Joneses, the stage is set for a lot of tears and tantrums.

But it gets worse even than that.

In the current security paranoia, here's a TIP: wire a doll to report back on suspicious activities in the home -- electronic reports to be filed back at headquarters of everything the "seeing" doll observes in the household it resides in. "Zoom in on that book, Cindy. Tell the kid to take you into Daddy's study, Cindy. Ask the kid to ask its Mom what it thinks of the guerre du jour, Cindy. Tell that kid what to think, Cindy." Stepford children are a breath away from that.

Sure, I'm over-reacting. Science fiction has had talking robots and androids for decades, and often they are seen in the role of nannies of caretakers of the young. But here's the thing, see -- a lot of those scenarios involve deeply Utopian societies which bear little or no resemblance to the screamingly commercial, severely paranoid and scared world we all live in right now. And many of those androids are actually dealing with adults, people whose ideas and thoughts and beliefs and opinions are already formed and are based on a set of (usually) reasonably defensive criteria. Our children do not yet have the capacity to apply such criteria. If a favorite doll starts saying, "I love you much more than Mommy does!", the five-year-old or the seven-year-old might begin to believe it.

Are we ready for AI toys which can communicate with our children without our supervision? Can we be sure that the innocent conversations involved in teaching the doll how to spell C-A-T won't evolve into the doll teaching the child how to spell S-P-Y and relay back every infelicitous word which could be uttered in the privacy of the home? How long before it becomes a question of this turning into a series of reports on whether or not there is a portrait of Our Glorious Leader on the wall of every home, and whether the proper incense is being burned before it?

Am I being paranoid and pessimistic? Possibly. But this scenario somehow reminds me far more of the "Chucky" movies than of "Bicentennial Man" or "Pinocchio".

Perhaps I read too much science fiction.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I'll go out and put on my brand new brand-name sneakers and go out for a nice juicy brand-name hamburger... or perhaps a double-crust, five cheese Perfect Pizza... as soon as my talking doll makes up its mind.

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Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her last novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, was published in September 2001 by Harper Collins. Hromic is an essential member of Swans. She maintains her own Web site (with Deck Deckert) where she provides information about her work and the professional services she offers: ButterknifeBooks.com

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Published September 23, 2002
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