Virtual children will be commonplace in 50 years, AI expert predicts

Rise of the ‘Tamagotchi kids’: Virtual children that play with you, cuddle you, and even look like you will be commonplace in 50 years – and could help combat overpopulation, AI expert predicts

  • Virtual children that play with you and look like you will be common in 50 years
  • That is the prediction of one of the UK’s leading experts on artificial intelligence
  • Catriona Campbell said the digital children may help to combat overpopulation
  • They would cost next to nothing to bring up as they’ll require minimal resources

Virtual children that play with you, cuddle you, and even look like you will be commonplace in 50 years, and could help to combat overpopulation, an artificial intelligence expert has claimed.

These computer-generated offspring will only exist in the immersive digital world known as the ‘metaverse’, which is accessed using virtual reality technology such as a headset to make a user feel as if they’re face-to-face with the child.

They will cost next to nothing to bring up, as they will require minimal resources, according to Catriona Campbell, one of the UK’s leading authorities on AI and emerging technologies.

In her new book, AI by Design: A Plan For Living With Artificial Intelligence, she argues that concerns about overpopulation will prompt society to embrace digital children.

She describes them as the ‘Tamagotchi generation’ — a reference to the handheld digital pets that became wildly popular among Western youngsters in the late 1990s and the 2000s.

Virtual children that play with you, cuddle you, and even look like you will be commonplace in 50 years, and could help to combat overpopulation, an artificial intelligence expert claims

These computer-generated offspring will only exist in the immersive digital world known as the ‘metaverse’, which is accessed using virtual reality technology such as a headset to make a user feel as if they’re face-to-face with the child

What is the metaverse?

The ‘metaverse’ is a set of virtual spaces where you can game, work and communicate with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you. 

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been a leading voice on the concept, which is seen as the future of the internet and would blur the lines between the physical world and the digital one.  

‘You’ll be able to hang out with friends, work, play, learn, shop, create and more,’ Facebook has said.

‘It’s not necessarily about spending more time online — it’s about making the time you do spend online more meaningful.’

While Facebook is leading the charge with the metaverse, it explained that it isn’t a single product one company can build alone. 

‘Just like the internet, the metaverse exists whether Facebook is there or not,’ it added. 

‘And it won’t be built overnight. Many of these products will only be fully realised in the next 10-15 years.’ 

‘Virtual children may seem like a giant leap from where we are now, but within 50 years technology will have advanced to such an extent that babies which exist in the metaverse are indistinct from those in the real world,’ she writes.

‘As the metaverse evolves, I can see virtual children becoming an accepted and fully embraced part of society in much of the developed world.’

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been a leading voice on the metaverse concept, which is seen as the future of the internet and would blur the lines between the physical world and the digital one. 

The term, coined in the 1992 dystopian novel ‘Snow Crash’, is used to describe immersive, shared spaces accessed across different platforms.

Ms Campbell believes that people will one day be able to use high-tech gloves that are able to deliver tactile feedback to replicate physical sensations.

This would allow someone to cuddle, feed and play with their digital offspring as though it were a real child.

‘We’re already well on our way to creating the Tamagotchi generation which, for all intents and purposes, will be “real” to their parents,’ Ms Campbell adds.

‘On the basis that consumer demand is there, which I think it will be, AI children will become widely available for a relatively small monthly fee.

‘Make no mistake that this development, should it indeed take place, is a technological game-changer which, if managed correctly, could help us solve some of today’s most pressing issues, including overpopulation.’

The AI expert said the virtual children would likely have photo-realistic faces and bodies – thanks to CGI and advance machine learning – and would be able to recognise and respond to their parents with the help of voice analysis and facial tracking.

She said parents would be able to interact with them in digital environments such as a park, swimming pool or living room.

They will also be able to choose how quickly the children grow up, if at all, and can share conversations and listen to a baby’s coo and giggle as part of the vision for the futuristic technology.

There is already a proof of concept for virtual children. 

‘BabyX’, which is an experiment by New Zealand-based company Soul Machines, is aimed at humanising AI to make it more appealing for the public to interact with.

The virtual child’s ‘brain’ is composed of algorithms that deduce what is good and bad.

This enables BabyX to learn how to respond to interactions just like a real baby. 

Its movements and expressions on screen are also devised from actual movements of babies.

What is ‘BabyX’ and how does the virtual child learn? 

‘BabyX’, which is an experiment by New Zealand-based company Soul Machines, is aimed at humanising AI to make it more appealing for the public to interact with. 

The virtual baby’s ‘brain’ is composed of algorithms that deduce what is good and bad.

Researchers program the brain to respond to certain commands, and also use recognition tools to allow it to identify words and images.

This then enables BabyX to learn how to respond to interactions just like a real baby.

For example when a researcher holds up the word ‘milk’, the baby identifies the letters and says the word.

The researcher then praises the baby verbally, which releases virtual dopamine.

The baby then learns that correctly identifying words like ‘milk’ is good, and learns to do so more in future.

Reinforcement learning like this, similar to a real baby, helps BabyX decide how to react to certain situations.

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