Increasing concerns around the environment and overpopulation, not to mention the cost of raising a child, are giving credence to the prediction that we are destined for a future of Tamagotchi kids and virtual parenting.
It’s getting increasingly difficult to make sense of the world and determine what is real and what is fake as the lines between fact and fiction continue to blur. In 2020, Jimmy Kimmel kicked off the Emmy Awards in front of a virtual audience that consisted of video footage from previous audiences. Elsewhere, virtual influencers continue to amass a massive following while earning millions and real tech billionaires inject themselves with the blood of children to extend their life.
You could be forgiven for thinking you had entered the Twilight Zone when surrounded by fake keyboard warriors and strangers online. But you might need to prepare yourself for an entirely new level of weirdness.
The Tamagotchi generation
In her book, In AI by Design: A Plan For Living With Artificial Intelligence, Catriona Campbell predicts that growing concerns will usher society into a new era where they embrace digital children. This will spark a movement that the author calls the Tamagotchi generation. She believes that within 50 years, technology will have advanced to a point where virtual babies raised in the metaverse will be indistinct from those in the real world.
The media has also promoted the bizarre concept as an opportunity for wannabe parents who cannot have babies naturally or cannot afford to raise a child. But if the thought of wearing high-tech haptic gloves to cuddle, feed, and play with your digital offspring sounds like an exaggerated claim from an author promoting their latest book, we are much closer to this leap than you might think.
BabyX is a simulation based on a real child aged around 18 months old. The virtual child is affected by various cognitive, emotional, and physiological factors. For example, if you were to show the word milk, it would identify the letters and repeat the word. Like a real baby, it will respond to praise and reinforcement learning thanks to minor hits of virtual dopamine.
In the case of BabyX, the project is built on the premise of enabling digital people to autonomously interact with users to help them learn how to relate to and trust machines. But once again, are we ourselves merely small children playing with sophisticated technologies blissfully unaware of the future problems that we could end up creating?
Predictions suggest a guilt-free authentic parental experience without worrying about costs or environmental impact could become a positive step forward for society. But being a parent is much more than a $25 per month subscription that you pay until you become bored with your virtual child and cancel the service.
Dealing with a tantrum is not as simple as threatening to reprogram them or shut them down forever. Could this technology risk dehumanizing what it's like to be a parent? The joy of having children is actually about raising kids as individuals who go on to become find their independence in this world rather than raising a generic robotic creature. With this in mind, creating the first fully digital demographic via a children on-demand service that we activate at our convenience feels wrong on every level.
Do we as a society want a metaverse?
For many people, the concept of home computing, the internet, and even smartphones felt like a highly bizarre concept when initially proposed. However, this time, the metaverse is widely seen as the inevitable future of the internet. But outside the media spotlight, finding anyone as excited about the metaverse who is not building the solutions can be challenging.
For example, in recent weeks, news headlines have suggested that virtual parenting is the answer to solving the overpopulation problem. At the same time, the World Economic Forum is working with big businesses to define and build an open, more inclusive metaverse. Still, the bigger question remains: Do we as a society want a metaverse?
A quick look at our immediate surroundings will typically reveal a horde of dopamine junkies face down in their smartphones as algorithms use their brains against them to ensure they keep endlessly scrolling. As each week passes by, our world becomes a little more difficult to comprehend, from deepfake videos to bot farms, spreading polarisation on Reddit and Twitter. So, where do we go from here?
There is an increasing argument that it's time to put down the tech and reconnect with the natural world and each other. If the future of the internet means replacing our natural world and present life to spend the rest of our days living inside a simulation raising virtual children for the good of the planet, you can count me out. But what will you choose?
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