Ep 146: How AI Impacts Our Teens

John Zerilli, PhD, author of A Citizen’s Guide to Artificial Intelligence, clues us in on how AI is affecting us right now and what it means for our teens and families. Plus, John’s prediction for when AI could take over--and what skills teens should hone in preparation.

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Full show notes

Our kids are growing up in a world where technology is expanding at a mind blowing pace! Every year they find themselves with shiny new social media apps, ten new video games that they HAVE to play, and fancy devices that are so much cooler than what came out last year. As a parent you may feel unsure about the best way to raise your teens in this tech-filled world. How can you get them to put down their phone and focus on college apps? Or even just go outside and get a little exercise?

While all this tech can be a distraction, it can also be pretty dangerous. There are some pretty frightening parts of the online landscape! Kids might accidentally find themselves entrenched in a hate group or engaged in dark, fringe content. Not to mention that as coders and computer experts become better and better at programming artificial intelligence, teens might find their future jobs at risk–or even experience prejudice as a result of robotic resume readers!

How is that all possible, you ask? John Zerilli, AI expert and this week’s guest, is here to tell us. He’s a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, and the author of A Citizen’s Guide to Artificial Intelligence. John predicts that in the coming years, AI is poised to infiltrate every area of our lives. He believes everyone has a right to be educated about it! He's here today to chat about how we can guide our teens through the coming technological revolution and ensure that they have bright and prosperous futures.

In today’s interview, we’re discussing how we can make cyberspace a safer place for kids. We’re also talking about how the job market is changing as AI grows in relevance and explains how racial and gender biases can be perpetuated by computer programs. So stick around, because you're not going to want to miss out on all this fascinating tech talk!

Setting Rules for Safe Browsing

For young people with curious minds, a simple visit to Youtube or Facebook can sometimes end in a bad place. Although they might not seek out damaging material, the algorithms on these websites can often act as a rabbit hole, John explains. Teens can find themselves pulled deeper and deeper into something dark just because it might pique interest or fascination. As they click, they get further from where they started and more engrossed into Q-Anon conspiracies, pornography or even racially offensive content.

Luckily, there are ways we can combat this. John and I emphasize the value of setting rules and guidelines for kids’ internet use so they don’t find themselves spiraling into harmful stuff. In the episode, we dive deeper into how we can help teens create these boundaries for safer internet use. We also talk about how important it can be to have conversations with kids about thinking critically when they consume content. John explained how we can guide them to shift through the material and separate the truth from the fiction.

When encouraging teens to think about the way they interact online, John also recommends talking to them about the “Echo Chamber”. This is a common trap social media users fall into, where they only interact with content that reinforces their own biases and viewpoints. You may have seen how this phenomenon affects adults, especially when it comes to politics! Teens can be just as vulnerable to this effect, if not more so, so John says it’s important to chat with them about being open minded before they find themselves unable to even consider other viewpoints besides their own.

Another place where the expansion of tech causes some questions and concerns from worried parents is the future job market. Are there going to be less opportunities when things become more automated? Are there more careers in tech spaces as computers become more powerful? What can we do to ensure our kids will thrive in a future driven by robotics?

Coming of Age in the Digital Age

Although many people are worried that automation will wreak havoc on the job market, John says that there’s no cause for concern just yet. We’re still far from a future of robot butlers and flying cars.

John explains that there are two kinds of AI: weak and strong. Weak AI is what we use in our daily lives, programs like Siri or Alexa, or the algorithm on Amazon which tells us which sweatpants we should buy. Strong AI is much more complex and sophisticated. For an automated program to fall into this category, it would have to be able to think like a human, moving from task to task with ease and understanding the complicated implications behind a simple command, says John.

For example, if you told a robot to “go to the store and pick up milk”, it would likely stroll down to the store, find a carton of milk, physically pick it up….and that’s all! For the program to understand that it needs to actually purchase the milk and bring it home, it would need to be at a higher level of intelligence than it is currently possible to program. This kind of machine thinking is what John describes as the “holy grail” of AI, and won’t be reached for at least one hundred years, according to John.

But still, it’s easy to be worried that teens are entering a less-than lucrative job market as things become more automated. So what kind of jobs should they be pursuing? In the episode, John and I delve deep into which jobs are at risk and which ones are safe. We also discuss how we can revisit our education system to ensure that kids are prepared for the obstacles they’ll face as they enter this new digital reality.

Interestingly, there are other parts of AI that might make your kids job search difficult. Although it may seem counterintuitive, AI has been proven to have racial and gender biases. You want your kid to have just as many opportunities as anyone else..so how can combat this confusing conundrum?

Programs and Prejudice

How could I robot possibly perpetuate discrimination? Aren’t they supposed to be purely logical? I was fascinated to hear John explain in our interview that because an overwhelming majority of computer programmers are whie men, the programs they build have been shown to work for white men much better than those of diverse identities. A classic example is facial recognition software! Programs intended to classify an individual's face are often much more effective at identifying specific white men, but not those of different ethnicities.

Although it seems like computers would be free of opinion, they tend to pass along the biases of those who program them. As John says, “rubbish in, rubbish out.” This same problem occurs when computers sift through stacks of resumes. When tests have been run to see how effective computers are at choosing candidates, researchers have found that programs just throw out any name that sounds feminine, severely limiting the chances of female applicants!

John explains that this is likely because, historically, women tend to leave their places of work earlier rather than later, due to pregnancy. Of course, this isn’t a valid reason not to hire women, and in fact, could definitely be considered a sexist practice! In the episode, John and I speak further on this concept, and talk about how we can keep this kind of discrimination from being something your teen has to worry about.

All in all, technology brings a lot of risks, but with John’s advice, we can learn to mitigate them.

In the Episode…

John’s brilliant mind shines through in our insightful interview! On top the ideas discussed above, we talk about:
  • Why careers like banking and engineering might be in trouble
  • How AI can help us make the internet safer
  • Why all kids should learn to code
  • If predictions about the future of AI are exaggerated or not
Although AI is complex, John gives you some digestible yet super valuable basic knowledge in this week’s episode! Happy listening, and we’ll see you next week!

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Creators and Guests

Andy Earle
Andy Earle
Host of the Talking to Teens Podcast and founder of Write It Great
John Zerilli
John Zerilli
Philosopher (Cognitive Science/AI/Law) | A/Professor in AI, Data, & Law, University of Edinburgh | Oxford Institute for Ethics in AI | Erdős 4 🇦🇺🇮🇹🏳️‍🌈
Ep 146: How AI Impacts Our Teens
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