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Psychologist Promotes “Virtual Children” for the Good of Earth

The former technology advisor to the U.K. government thinks that parents may prefer no-strings AI children for $25 a month

What if you had a child who was simply a virtual reality, who had no existence about from your own wishes? British psychologist Catriona Campbell, whose aim is to secure “a healthy, human-centred relationship with AI,” thinks that’s the way of the future and better for the planet.

The vision of the author of AI by design: A Plan for Living with Artificial Intelligence (Chapman and Hall/CRC, 2022, is spelled out at Study Finds:

The overpopulation crisis could be solved within 50 years thanks to the evolution of “virtual children,” one of Britain’s leading artificial intelligence experts claims. Computer-generated babies that cost about $25 a month are likely to become commonplace by the early-2070s, according to Catriona Campbell.

In addition to her expertise in AI, Campbell is also one of the UK’s top authorities in emerging and disruptive technologies, and a former UK Government adviser. She says by 2070, augmented reality (AR) and haptic “touch-sensitive” gloves will make the experience potentially “lifelike.”

Study Finds, “‘Virtual babies’ who grow up in real time will be commonplace by 2070, expert predicts” at Study Finds (May 31, 2022)

Geoff Allen, the “Study Finds Guy” is clearly not a virtual tot fan: In a nutshell, he responds, having child is about the child; having virtual child is about you.

Elsewhere, many benefits are asserted:

Virtual parenting works through taking care of a child through buttons and AR devices that provide lifelike features. It will heavily rely on catering to the sense of touch and virtual and holographic projections. Moreover, there would be no cost for space, food, and health maintenance of these made-up children as long as real-world parents take good care of them.

Today, more than 300,000 infants are born every single day. The total number of newborns surpasses even the mortality rate of the planet. Many studies show that the trend would lead to an explosion of the global population by 2100, reaching a whopping 11 billion. Alongside the increase in birth rate, many diseases, crime-related activities, and food shortages would occur.

Ron Jefferson, “Virtual ‘Tamagochi’ Children Will Give Parents Real-Life Experience With Kids in the Metaverse By 2070” at Science Times (June 1, 2022)

The claims about population above are misleading. First, the number of infants born every day is a function of the size of the current adult population — in the same way that the number of calves born in a barn is a function of how many cows live there. It says nothing about birth rate, which is the key figure for long-term prediction.

Even doomsayers admit that birth rates are declining globally, due mainly to urbanization (less living space) and industrialization (reduced need for human labor). If Big Tech players and governments do nothing at all, human population growth will slow. Some populous countries, like Japan, are already in absolute population decline due to low birth rates.

A less well-recognized factor in the increase in the human population is increasing longevity. Across the world, modern medicine has meant that people who are born alive today tend to live much longer than they would have lived if they had they been born a century earlier. It’s the same people, okay? And they are not having bunch more kids, They are having fewer kids — but they themselves are still around at 70 years of age.

More usefully, we learn from ScienceDaily that a number of couples today think they cannot afford (actual) children:

According to a 2020 study by YouGov, about ten percent of childless couples are hesitant to give birth to an offspring due to overpopulation concerns, and a separate ten percent do not want to build a family due to the costs of raising a child.

Ron Jefferson, “Virtual ‘Tamagochi’ Children Will Give Parents Real-Life Experience With Kids in the Metaverse By 2070” at Science Times (June 1, 2022)

Inflation can have more significant long-term outcomes than current yelps of dismay at the prices posted at the gas pump.

The idea of virtual children has been compared to the Nineties craze for wristwatch size Tamagotchi characters with whom owners could have pseudo-relationships:

There were no real-world consequences for causing one’s forgotten Tamagotchi character to die of abuse or neglect; presumably, that would also be true of virtual children — thus entrenching a behavior pattern in the “parent.”

But our futurist remains hopeful:

“This will lead to the first, fully digital demographic which, although somewhat strange on first appearance, in fact represents what could be one of mankind’s most important technological breakthroughs since the advent of the Bronze Age given its potential impact on global populations and societal change,” she said.

The technologist also suggested that parental satisfaction could be even higher with virtual children — with more control over how their digital spawn is designed. Their lifespan could be preprogrammed, and exist in real time, or allow parents to “activate” them at their convenience, as children on-demand.

Hannah Sparks, “We’ll have ‘virtual’ babies within 50 years, AI expert predicts” at New York Post (June 1, 2022)

And de-activate them, perhaps permanently, when bored.

Campbell believes that virtual children would be a good test run for real-world parenthood. They certainly would be if children were completely disposable at all stages of development. Apart from that, this proposal is likely to become — and remain — a minor mid-twenty-first century urban cult.

You may also wish to read: Sophia the Robot retooled to help with senior care. Hanson Robots sees a huge opportunity in the COVID lockdowns for a mass robot rollout that substitutes for human companionship. Replacing health care staff with robots is a huge change in a value system where human contact has been seen—by seniors and others—as critical for well-being.

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Psychologist Promotes “Virtual Children” for the Good of Earth