Having now worked in the mobile apps industry for several years, I’m troubled that the most popular technology trends at CES will harm the developmental health of our children. Even worse, I feel that technology companies, government, and society are likely to make the same mistakes made with mobile screen time — though at a much greater cost.
With an urgency similar to what has moved nations to ward off the worst of global warming, we too must act now to prepare our children and better understand and regulate organizations developing artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), and 5G (5th generation mobile connectivity). This is why I’m asking the United States federal government to appoint a task force consisting of consumer advocates and technology experts to recommend policy to the relevant Congressional committees and the Federal Trade Commission.
Why create a federal task force?
Even though the emerging technologies at CES are rolling out very quickly, there were plenty of headlines in 2018 suggesting that the crises with mobile screen time is far from fully understand, let alone resolved. Major research conducted by bodies such as the NIH and the American Heart Association and research published in The Lancent suggest that screen time, if not properly managed by parents, may be detrimental to a child’s physical, emotional, developmental, and cognitive health.
Research by the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI) and Dr. Jenny Radesky’s lab at the University of Michigan reveals the extent to which children’s mobile app content may not comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Advocacies seem to be in overdrive fighting for children’s online protections, including filing a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Youtube. The First Lady Melania Trump chooses to tackle online bullying with her BeBest campaign. The primary mobile operating systems, iOS and Android, now have parental control features, though I’d say they are 10 years too late. And fortunately, thanks to the work of advocacies like Common Sense Media, there is movement in Congress to fund research with the Children and Media Research Advancement Act (CAMRA).
Unfortunately, the companies at CES — and media covering them — did not attempt to explain how AI, VR, and 5G are going to be far more dangerous for children than mobile screen time.
A greater danger
Although the vast majority of products we interact with on a daily basis have not yet implemented AI, it has already negatively affected children’s health during screen time. How? AI infers a child’s interests and demographics by analyzing the child’s actions and choices during gameplay, and then it presents the child with highly personalized content and targeted advertising. This AI activity is dangerous for a child because a child does not understand that their experiences are not purely coincidental. Therefore, there is a strong possibility that a child will come to prefer to “live” in this personalized digital world rather than in the actual world.
VR headsets are going to amplify the negative effects of this AI-powered personalized world. If mobile screen time is considered dangerous partly because a parent cannot co-view content as easily as they can on a TV, what about VR headsets where the viewing is limited to the user? What is more worrisome is that over time the child may not be able to easily distinguish the content experienced in VR — recorded and streaming video, video games, and video chat — from real life. Therefore, a virtual realistic life that is also personalized will surely be a life that is preferred to real life. To boot, with this technology, developers and content creators will possibly influence a child’s thinking in scary ways, directing not only the child’s future consumer behaviors but even shaping the child’s philosophical, political, and religious thought.
Then there is what some call the electricity of the new era, 5G, which ties all of the other technologies together. 5G will enable any internet connected device blazing fast speeds with low latency. Verizon claims that “5G will deliver speeds roughly 20 times faster than what is possible with 4G … latency could drop into the single milliseconds, making lag times nearly impossible to detect.” So that means that AI-processed data can travel from device to device or device to server and back with nearly zero latency, and images streaming from the other side of the world, even from the outdoors, can appear through VR headsets as if the child is actually present.
When I’ve met with some of the leading mobile games and apps developers to encourage their use of our technology that enables them to more easily comply with the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), it’s become clear that it’s imperative that these companies need “help” prioritizing their development backlog. I’ve yet to have similar conversations with developers of these emerging technologies, though it’d be easy to assume their priorities are the same. So, while I understand that these companies must focus on improving business metrics, and regulatory compliance often seems like an impetus to that, I’m confident — as I’ve outlined in my May 2018 op-ed to VentureBeat — that compliance with COPPA and GDPR and financial success is not mutually exclusive.
Therefore, I call upon the federal government of the United States to establish a task force comprised of consumer advocates and industry insiders to actively provide policy recommendations to the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Department of Commerce National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Policies resulting from the task force may be funded in part by publicly traded technology companies that have a market capitalization of over $10 billion, as these are likely the companies whose technologies are at issue here, though they are not prioritizing the potential negative effects their products have on children and society. Though this task force will not be able to have any decision making power over policy, the goal is that the news media will shine a spotlight on the various committees and regulators’ progress or lack thereof.
To technology companies, let the formation of this task force be a clear signal to hold your horses and consider the unintended consequences at every step of releasing your technology.
To our government, let it be understood that your slow responses to regulating – let alone, understanding — the technological advances will no longer be tolerated by families who have children at risk.
The truth is that we will not have a democratic republic much longer if the technology giants – who are increasingly more influential in our lives than any governmental body – continue to be regulated by folks who do not understand technologies (remember the myriad of uninformed questions asked by our elected officials congressional hearings to Facebook’s and Google’s CEOs last year?) and by special interests who continue to prioritize investors, not families. What’s more — our Republic will certainly not last even another generation if the unsafe, unhealthy, and unproductive lives our children have increasingly lived due to screen time are perpetuated by companies who have decided that their technology exists only to benefit them, not we the people.
William Heathershaw’s decade in tech has primarily focused on mobile, within both startups and public companies based in Beijing and the Bay Area, and currently serves as CEO of UncleWilliam.org.