If you prick it, it will not bleed. If you tickle it, it will not laugh. And, perhaps most importantly, if you wrong it, it will not resent. The offspring of the future, if AI experts are to be believed, will be more sophisticated versions of Tamagotchis — the digital pets that were a rage in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Lines of code in the metaverse, digital babies will likely be able to grow, simulate age and development-appropriate emotion and even, perhaps, throw the odd tantrum. But unlike flesh-and-blood offspring, they can be turned off.
With more and more people deciding not to have children, Catriona Campbell, author of AI by Design: A Plan For Living With Artificial Intelligence, believes that digital children, designed to resemble their “parents” will become increasingly acceptable. In essence, people will be able to enjoy parenthood in an immersive metaverse without actually having children. And they will certainly be more convenient. Irritated by the “terrible twos”? Simply fast-forward through that age. Want to hold on to the last precious years of childhood before the sullen teenage years begin? Just extend that period. Worried about which memories, which mistakes your Tamagotchi child will crib about to its shrink as an adult? Delete the wound that may cause a scar for life.
The only issue is this: Parenthood is not a customer-driven enterprise. Children can surprise and disappoint, turn out better or worse than their progenitors hope and expect. The decision to have them is at once selfish (to cast a piece of yourself into the future) and selfless (to agree to take care of a life). In fact, given the state of the digital world today, it’s likely that the prejudice of the physical world will be replicated. After all, there is already talk of “gene editing” for biological children. A digital child is a toy, not a person, just as the Tamagotchi was no true replacement for a dog. But that doesn’t mean they won’t sell like hotcakes.