Digital Child’s Play: Protecting Children from the Effects of AI


GENEVA – Artificial intelligence has been used in products for children for several years, but legislation to protect against the potential effects of the technology is still in its infancy. In the run-up to a global forum on AI for children, UN News spoke to two experts from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) about the need for improved political protection.

Children are already interacting with AI technologies in a variety of ways: they are embedded in toys, virtual assistants, video games and adaptive learning software.

Its impact on children’s lives is profound, yet UNICEF found that children’s rights are at best a minor issue when it comes to AI policies and practices.

In response, the United Nations Children’s Fund has developed a draft Policy Guidance on AI for Children to advance children’s rights and raise awareness of how AI systems can maintain or undermine these rights.

UN News’s Conor Lennon asked Jasmina Byrne, Policy Chief of the UNICEF Global Insights Team, and Steven Vosloo, a UNICEF data, research and policy specialist, about the importance of putting children at the center of AI-related policies.

AI technology will fundamentally change society.

Steven Vosloo said at UNICEF we saw that AI is a very hot topic and something that will fundamentally change society and the economy, especially for generations to come.

However, when we looked at national AI strategies and company policies and guidelines, we found that insufficient attention was paid to children and how it affects them.

That is why we launched a comprehensive consultation process in which we spoke with experts from around the world and with almost 250 children in five countries.

This process led to our draft guidance document, and after we published it, we invited governments, organizations, and companies to test it. We develop case studies around the instruction so that we can share the knowledge gained.

Jasmina Byrne said AI has been in development for many decades. It is in itself neither harmful nor benevolent. It is the application of these technologies that makes them either useful or harmful.

There are many positive uses of AI that can be used in personalized learning education. It can be used in healthcare, speech simulation and processing, and is used to support children with disabilities.

And we use it at UNICEF. For example, it helps us predict the spread of diseases and improve poverty estimates. But there are also many risks associated with the use of AI technologies.

Children are constantly interacting with digital technologies, but they are not aware, and many adults are unaware, that many of the toys or platforms they use are powered by artificial intelligence.

For this reason, we felt that special attention should be paid to children and their particular vulnerabilities.

Data protection and the winning motive

Vosloo: The AI ​​may use natural language processing to understand words and instructions, so it collects a lot of data from this child, including intimate conversations, and that data is stored in the cloud, often on commercial servers. So there are privacy concerns.

We also know cases in which such toys were hacked and banned in Germany because they were considered safe enough.

Around a third of all online users are children. We often find that younger children use social media platforms or video sharing platforms that were not designed for them.

They are often designed for maximum engagement and based on a certain level of profiling based on records that may not represent children.

Predictive analytics and profiling are particularly relevant when dealing with children: AI can profile children in such a way that they fall into a certain drawer, and this can determine what kind of educational opportunities they will have in the future or what advantages parents have for children. So AI is not only influencing them today, but could also steer their entire life in a different direction.

Byrne: That was big news in the UK last year. The government used an algorithm to predict high school student graduation grades.

And because the data fed into the algorithms was skewed for children from private schools, their results were really terrifying and they really discriminated against a lot of children who came from minority communities. So they had to give up this system.

This is just one example of how algorithms based on skewed data can actually have very negative consequences for children.

“It is now a digital life”

Vosloo: We really hope that our recommendations will get through to the people who actually write the code.

The policy guidelines are aimed at a broader audience, governments and policymakers who are increasingly setting strategies and starting to think about regulating AI, and the private sector who frequently develop these AI systems.

We see competing interests: The decisions relating to AI systems often have to weigh up an incentive to win against an ethical one.

What we stand for is a commitment to responsible AI that comes from above: not just at the level of the data scientist or software developer, top management and high-ranking government ministers.

Byrne: The data footprint that children leave by using digital technologies is being commercialized and used by third parties for their own gain and benefit.

They are often targeted by ads that are not really appropriate for them. This is something that we have been following and monitoring very closely.

However, I would say that there is now more political interest in addressing these issues and we are working to get them on the agenda of policy makers.

Governments need to think for themselves and put children at the center of all their policymaking around digital cutting-edge technologies. When we don’t think about them and their needs. Then we really miss great opportunities.

Vosloo: The Scottish government published its AI strategy in March and officially adopted the UNICEF guidelines on AI for children.

And that was also because the government as a whole put the Convention on the Rights of the Child into effect. Children’s lives are no longer really online or offline. And it’s a digital life now.

The Global Forum on AI for Children

• From November 30th to December 1st, UNICEF and the Finnish government are organizing the Global Forum on AI for Children.

• This event brings together the world’s foremost child rights and technology experts, policy makers, practitioners and researchers, and children active in the AI ​​space to connect knowledge on pressing issues at the intersection of children’s rights, digital technology policies and AI systems and exchange. .

• The forum aims to summarize the project outcomes and impacts, share knowledge about what worked and what didn’t for a more child-centered AI, and enable networking on how to continue the work and inspire participants to take action . – UN news


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