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In 2017, chatbots & other imaginary friends

chatbotI am not kidding: The latest tech developments – and certainly not just those aimed at kids – remind me of the much-loved cartoon show of the last decade, “Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.” There are all kinds of imaginary friends emerging, from the toy kind to the digital kind to the kind kids believe they are and have as fans of each other. That probably doesn’t make complete sense yet, so let me explain:

  • Toys as imaginary friends. There are actual toys with embedded bots kids can talk to, like this year’s My Friend Cayla and i-Que Intelligent Robot and last year’s Hello Barbie – physical, doll-like imaginary friends that have artificial intelligence software inside them that enables chat, “learns” about their kid owners through that chat and sends what it learns to servers at their toy companies (caveats abound, e.g., here and here about the safety of connected toys and one about smart toy hackers here). These are not to be confused with the very alive-seeming Hatchimals, which ABC News says were the hot toy this holiday season and which are not Net-connected.
  • Kids who have imaginary friends (fans) because they are imaginary friends (fans) of kid YouTube stars. That’s a lot to wrap our brains around, I know, so read this in the Washington Post:

    For the youngest members of the next generation, sometimes called Generation Z, the distinction between the online world and real life is fading [this was actually true a decade ago]. Parents are having to explain to their toddlers that the children whose whole lives they see on the screen aren’t actually their friends. They’re finding their kids methodically “unboxing” their toys, as if they’ve been paid to review them for an audience. “Who are you talking to?” a parent will ask. “The viewers,” their children reply.

  • Chatbot imaginary friends. Chatbots, explained by The Guardian here, are the next digital wave our children (and we) will be catching. “Chatbots have suddenly become the biggest thing in tech,” reported TechCrunch earlier this year. So, in essence, they’re everybody’s imaginary “friends” and helpers and concierges and whatever the businesses that deploy them – from airlines to your friendly corner convenience store – want them to be for us. People, such as many of the WeChat app’s more than 800 million active users in China, are already using them for calling a cab, ordering takeout, buying a t-shirt, finding a date and plain-old venting to a faux confidant. Examples abound, but some of the more teen-friendly ones are in Kik messenger app’s Bot Shop – definitely worth parents taking a look.

Ted Livingston, founder and CEO of Kik.com, says they’re the new browser, by which he means the next major tech development. First there was the browser, clunky at first, but soon THE way to search, buy, be entertained, etc. Then there was the mobile platform with its rapidly multiplying and now gazillion apps. Now chatbots are clunky like the Web’s early days in the U.S., but soon each one will do a gazillion things as WeChat does, so we won’t have to have a gazillion apps on our phones. If parents are relying solely on control to keep their kids digitally safe (see this and this), it’ll be even harder to keep track of what’s happening in a single chatbot with a gazillion uses than with a phone screen showing separate icons of single-use apps (though number of uses is a matter of degree, not just one or many, of course).

The powerful convenience factor

What makes chatbots the next wave is convenience, according to Kik’s Livingston (remember that the digital age privacy spectrum doesn’t go from private to public, it goes from private to convenient, and a lot of people give up privacy for convenience). “A chatbot,” Livingston says, “is immediately accessible. You can start chatting with it by scanning a code, typing in a username, or tapping a link. With one tap, you give it permission to access your account. Then, because the interaction is just a conversation, you immediately know how to use it. The entire process takes seconds instead of minutes. There’s no download, no account creation, and no learning curve.” Others, such as VentureBeat and The Economist agree we’re now in “the next frontier.”

So just watch (literally!): Unboxings have probably already had to make room for hatchings on YouTube, and your kids, students and grandchildren will be doing real and imaginary hatchings for their real and imaginary friends online and offline. I’ve seen and written about a lot of research about youth and digital media, and I’ve seen nothing that says there’s anything wrong or inherently unhealthy about that. How all this goes depends on the individual child and their surroundings (for me, the top finding of the lit review of a national task force I served on was that a child’s psychosocial makeup and home and school environment are better predictors of their online risk or safety than any technology they use). It also depends on the literacy skills we help our kids develop.

chatbothumanThe opportunity

Every tech development offers an opportunity for adults and the kids in their lives to learn about both the technology and each other (and to grow mutual respect). When kids show great interest in a particular tech activity, the key to taking advantage of that opportunity is honest curiosity on our part. Tech changes, but what I suggested five years ago hasn’t changed a bit: If a child’s open to it, either observe them playing the game, doing the art, using the app, etc. or use the media with them. Ask honest questions, let them teach you, be playful, and you turn the experience into experiential learning for them and you. Encourage them to reflect on and talk about what they’re seeing. Model honest inquiry. Help them develop their agency.

Bottom line: All the above is more about our humanity than our technology, and the more humanlike our technology gets, the more important two things will be:

  1. The more crucial it will be to understand the capabilities and limitations of our technology (through media literacy and digital literacy) and…
  2. The more imperative (and meaningful) it’ll be for humans of all ages to understand and interact well with each other (through the empathy and other skills of social literacy).

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