I’m sitting on the beach at North Berwick, with clear views out to the Bass Rock and May Isle, watching the children play. My daughter digs a deep hole, then runs off to find hermit crabs in the rock pools. Nearby, a young boy is buried up to the neck while his sister decorates his sarcophagus with shells. On the shore, a toddler stands transfixed by a washed-up jellyfish, while two older girls struggle to manipulate a boat in the shallows, trying to avoid the splashing boys playing swim-tig.
We’re under the benign shadow of the North Berwick Law, where there’s a bronze-age hill fort, so it’s likely this holiday postcard scene has not changed much since this part of Scotland was first settled, thousands of years ago, when those children dug holes, found crabs, and frolicked in the sea. I felt a wave of such sadness, thinking forward in time. Will this beach still play host to the children of the far distant future, or will we have designed out childhood by then? Robots don’t have childhoods because they don’t need them. Humans still do, but I wonder how much time you’ve spent trying to figure out why?
At the moment we need a childhood to grow physically, and to develop mentally towards adulthood and independence from our parents. All robots are adult already, so don’t need of this rather awkward and inefficient phase: just a quick test, then the on button. As a species, humans are ridiculously slow to mature. This is so obviously problematic when compared to other species that there must be an evolutionary reason for keeping this comparative design flaw. It seems that to develop a brain of human complexity takes time, hence this slow process.
But if we could decode the brain, could we not short-circuit the process by cloning adults and programming them direct? This of course is the ultimate design goal of AI, and we’re familiar with it from a whole host of SciFi movies: whether or not we keep humans as well, or simply use the secrets of their brains to evolve beyond them remains to be seen.
It might seem obscene, in these halcyon days of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to empty my beach by indulging in a thought experiment about the future of childhood, but given that our technology has already overtaken our capacity to agree global ethical red lines in so many areas, we need to confront this spectre in order to work out not only why it feels anathema to us, but what that might do in response.
What are these children doing on the beach? All parents who have spent interminable hours in dilapidated playgrounds will have had the same thought, in case there might be an easier way. They are playing, of course, but with Darwin’s eyes we can also see that they are learning. They are learning about their physicality and their preferences; they are learning about other people and about relationships; they are learning about the natural world and about the world’s rules. So beware the child with no scabs on their knees: they have not yet learned about taking risks. We’re quite quixotic about childhood. Most of us loathed our own, but it seems we will fight to our dying breath to protect the childhoods of those we love, so our children still tuck a baby tooth under their pillow, and write to Santa Claus.
We’re in a transition. AI can already do many of the cognitive things that humans can do, more quickly, accurately and cheaply, and it’s improving all the time. This creates a dilemma. Because the future is not yet here, we’re still competing hard in the previous race, and on its terms. While most parents know that google has already overtaken their children, and there is more to education than information, the current social frenzy is still about doing your utmost to get your kids into the Gradgrind School of Facts. But the shadow of the future is already here, so we know that today’s highly-prized selective crammers, with a zeal for STEM and an ability to churn out volumes of A stars and Oxbridge places, have maybe 10-15 years to rake it in before their product becomes obsolete. We do need human computers in the interim, to programme AI for us, but once we’ve aced machine learning they will also become defunct. Meanwhile the crammers could save costs and boost performance by removing their STEM teachers in favour of so-called intelligent tutors, because AI-led learning already outperforms traditional learning in most settings.
Yet there is in traditional education a core curriculum which has not yet been improved by AI: moreover it may not be susceptible to AI in the way that STEM undoubtedly is. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think the key to our humanity isn’t to be found in the clean lines of rationality that would delight any programmer, but in our junk code: the mistakes, the regrets, the dreams, the grief, the envy, the fear, and the joy. We learn these kinds of things very messily on the beaches and in the playgrounds of our childhoods; but at school we learn it particularly in the arts and the humanities: through the myths and stories about human waywardness; the mind-stretching disciplines of philosophy; and the creativity and exuberance of music, drama and art. In all of these, we learn the fundamentally frustrating qualitative nature of argument and criticism, where there are no clear-cut yes/no answers and it is nigh on impossible to score 100%. (By the way, it’s not that we can’t learn these things in STEM subjects, it’s just that they are not taught that way at elementary level).
I’d wager we learn these junk code things with the particular help of the emotions, because of the role the amygdala plays in memory and in survival. And if that’s the case, it’s the reason we need to stop designing out bad stuff like not coming first or fluffing your lines in front of your peers. We might learn joy from a well-done sum, but we don’t learn shame or embarrassment or chagrin or schadenfreude. Kids need to wallow in the absolute limits of being human in order to feel these limits for themselves: this is a vital prerequisite for the rule of law as well as for human ingenuity and invention. Robots have to act within the bounds of the theoretically known because they are victims of their programming. If only to design better robots, we need to keep pushing at these bounds, in order to extend them: no paradigm shift was ever created without this very human recalcitrance.
So while we decide whether or not childhood is a state that we want to protect in the future, if we develop the know-how to avoid it, we should relish the very essence of childhood, by fighting back against the prevailing policy that prioritises STEM. Indeed we should reverse this trend while there is still time, and make the arts and the humanities both compulsory and subsidised in all formal education. And maybe we should risk teaching philosophy to those kids on the beach: versions of the trolley problem are a daily reality for them anyway, so they might be best placed to help us solve it.
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Great Radio 4 daily series on the history of summertime just now, celebrating children running wild every summer.
I can’t wait to read her book on it!