They will cuddle you, play with you and, of course, resemble you. They will require minimal resources and will cost next to nothing to bring up.
If these sound like ideal children to you, be warned: what has just been described is a virtual child. These metaverse-hosted digital babies, an artificial intelligence expert has predicted, will be commonplace in 50 years.
Catriona Campbell, one of the UK’s leading authorities in AI and emerging and disruptive technologies, made the eyebrow-raising prediction in a book published this week.
In AI by Design: A Plan For Living With Artificial Intelligence, Ms Campbell argues that concerns about overpopulation will prompt society to embrace digital children. It is a demographic transformation that she has nicknamed the “Tamagotchi generation".
“Virtual children may seem like a giant leap from where we are now,” she writes, “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.
“As the metaverse evolves, I can see virtual children becoming an accepted and fully embraced part of society in much of the developed world.”
The metaverse is an immersive digital world. It is seen as the future of the internet and will be more physically interactive. Ms Campbell suggests that high-tech gloves able to deliver tactile feedback might reproduce the physical sensations of cuddling, feeding and playing with one’s offspring.
Ms Campbell cited widespread concern about the environmental toll exacted by the world’s increasing population, which is nearing eight billion. A 2020 YouGov study into why couples choose not to have children found that nearly 10 per cent remain childless because of overpopulation concerns, while a further 10 per cent choose not to start a family because of the cost of raising a child.
Watch: What is the metaverse?
Many researchers now believe that declining fertility rates will cause the world’s population to fall in the second half of the century, and some argue that technological advances will ensure that the next generation’s environmental footprint is smaller than our own.
Nevertheless, Ms Campbell argues that consumers will be attracted to environmentally friendly digital children. Referring to the virtual pets that were created in Japan and became a craze among Western children in the late 1990s and early 2000s, she said: “We’re already well on our way to creating the Tamagotchi generation which, for all intents and purposes, will be ‘real’ to their parents.
“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.”
Ms Campbell said that, through CGI and advanced machine learning, digital children will have photo-realistic faces and bodies, and they will be able to recognise and respond to their parents using facial tracking and voice analysis.
They will be capable of speech and simulated emotional responses encompassing a baby’s coo, a child’s giggle and a teenager’s backchat. Their parents will be able to interact with them in digital environments of their choosing, such as a sitting room, park or swimming pool. They will also be able to choose how quickly their digital children grow up, if at all.
A proof of concept for virtual children already exists in the form of “BabyX”, an experiment by New Zealand-based company Soul Machines. The project’s aim is to humanise AI so that it is more appealing for the public to interact with.