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Generating the Future with AI – UCI News

Ito says her “weird little niche” in anthropology has less to do with geographical differences than generational ones. “Cultural anthropologists traditionally go to foreign cultures to try to understand them and explain them to folks who don’t share that culture,” she says. “My core research is instead based on studying youth culture and how they engage with the internet. I try to explain to parents, educators and policymakers what kids are actually doing in the online world. There’s a tendency to assume they’re addicted to their screens and that social media is driving mental health problems. That’s worthy of concern, but there’s so much more to learn about how youths are interacting with the digital world with innovation, initiative and optimism.”

At UC Irvine, Ito is professor-in-residence of informatics and John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Chair in Digital Media and Learning, as well as director of the Connected Learning Lab in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences.

“In the Connected Learning Lab, we have a diverse group of faculty spanning the social, behavioral, cultural and technological sides of learning, with projects and research initiatives centered around an equity-oriented and learner-centered approach to engaging with and developing learning technologies,” she says. “We address questions about what it means for young people to grow up and learn in an increasingly digital age.”

“And AI,” she tells UC Irvine Magazine contributor Jim Washburn, “is definitely one thing we’re focused on now.”

Why do you think artificial intelligence has so quickly become a sensation, and what does that portend for students and other young people?

Generative AI like ChatGPT almost seems magical, right? It’s like when the iPhone first came out and changed people’s imagination of how we interact with computers.

This moment with AI is unique because in the past waves of transformative technology and youths’ adoption of it that I studied, grownups didn’t think it was going to be a big deal until after young people had already adopted it and created a lot of new cultural and social norms. Text messaging, networking and social media had saturated youth culture before grownups even began to imagine that adults would be on Facebook or that the “silly kid stuff” of online games would permeate our culture.

Now, generative AI is a disorienting moment for me as a digital culture researcher because adults are paying attention and are kind of panicked about it when nothing much has happened yet. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but I think it’s good that policymakers and educators are anticipating broader societal changes with the technology and are trying to get ahead of it.

What keeps me up at night is how we address access and equity with these powerful new tools. Too much of the attention so far on generative AI has been addressing questions of “How do we regulate access for the kids who have access?” rather than “How do we give access to the kids who don’t?” I feel it’s a public policy and educational priority to ensure that this technology is accessible to lower-income youths, rural youths and others. Otherwise, it’s just a rich-get-richer scheme where the more the technology improves, the greater the gap is going to be.

What are some of the issues you see with AI, weighed against the advantages?

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, that’s for sure. Bullying, shaming, social comparisons, misinformation, inappropriate photos and other things have been spreading in the digital world for years. Add AI-generated deepfakes into that mix, and there’s a lot that could go wrong.

For educators, things like ChatGPT generating essays for students certainly can make cheating easier, but cheating already was not easy to catch if you have 50 students writing essays based on the same prompt. The educational system for some time has been a bit out of sync with where knowledge and technology are, because our assessments and systems were designed in an era where there wasn’t the kind of easy knowledge sharing that kids grow up with now.

Generative AI is accelerating that culture clash. But it’s such a tremendously powerful creation tool for text, image, video, audio and music generation that it’s not going away. Instead, the nature of how we teach may need to change to incorporate it. I would love to see more educators and researchers involving young people and their creative energy in defining how new technologies can be used in education. That’s one of our priorities in the Connected Learning Lab.

What does a future with AI hold for young people?

For one thing, how we all interact with computers is going to have a more naturalistic conversational component that will have wide-reaching effects on how we educate young people with technology. There’s going to be a new language of communication that emerges, using these tools to create all kinds of media so much more easily. That will change sociability in ways we don’t really understand yet.

It will be interesting to see what the sheer volume of content that’s going to be produced with generative AI does to culture and society. If we think there’s a lot of content on the internet now, just wait!

And I’m curious what it will be like for kids to grow up with an artificial new companion species. It may be as life-changing as it was for me growing up with animals, in that they’re for sure not humans, but they’re intelligent, interesting and pleasurable to interact with. It’s going to become a part of the human experience to have relationships with these artificial agents. Alexa and Siri are not that interesting to talk to, but once they become ChatGPT-level conversational agents in your house – in your stuffed animal or wherever they decide to embed them – that’s going to be a whole new set of relationships for children and adults to navigate.

There are valid concerns and uncertainties about how AI will impact different fields in the workforce, whether these new technologies will displace workers, require new skills or both. One thing that is clear: Skills in using generative AI will be valuable moving forward in many good jobs, just as we have seen how tech skills are essential to success in knowledge and creative work today. The paradigm of how we interact with computers is changing from a step-by-step coding, command-and-control model to one that feels more social in nature – conversing with, interacting with, training and managing artificial intelligences. These softer skills for interacting with AI will become more important in both our daily lives and our success in many high-value fields.

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