The rise of the robots is upon us. AI is here and is coming to a digital device near you (and your children) very, very soon…if it isn’t already.
Some say it’s a good thing, others say it’s a bad thing and a few say we should just slow down a little and work out what on earth is actually going on.
For this column I’d like to focus on AI and its role in storytelling. Since we first stood up right and explored out of Africa, stories have been the thing that have bound us, kept us safe, taught us how to live with each other and importantly, have given our children comfort, joy and inspiration. And they’ve always been a special part of parenting too.
There is something timeless, true and incredibly valuable about sharing a story with a child. The physicality of it, the expression of it, the human nature of it. Stories are crafted from experience, drafted with love and they are full of intent.
Children have always been early adopters and whilst familiar is often preferred, new doesn't frighten them; it is there to be understood as is everything else in life. And as technology has marched forward in the last century, stories have been told to children in new and (for the time) wondrous mediums: radio, TV, cassettes, CDs and, more recently, the smart speaker has dutifully become a benign storyteller and babysitter for families around the world. And the wonderful thing about audio is that it is the one medium that families engage in most together. In our recent Global Family Study, 56% of parents with children between the ages of 4 - 13 said that they listened with their children “most of the time”. It’s a powerhouse for music, podcasts and yes, increasingly stories.
But here’s the thing: the stories that have been told through these new fangled wonders of modern science have, until now, been written by a person. An ”Organic”. An individual compelled to commit thought to paper through creativity and a need to engage an audience of young people for their betterment. Until now.
The rise of the robots is in many ways a testament to the achievements of humanity and the drive we have to push ourselves forward - it’s evolution. But since those first days of our upright walking, the stories we have told have been unique. They have been born of human experience to improve the human experience.
There’s so much to love about AI and what it can bring to children’s media - the idea of having a favourite celebrity or character telling your child their favourite story with a simple voice command, is a beautiful thing - and the brand building opportunities are huge. Make no mistake, AI can observe, digest and apply every convention of literature and has the ability to conflate a myriad of characters to devise new ones. It’s already happening in the world of children’s TV. It will make writers redundant and it will homogenise narrative. It will turn the act of creation into a string of code that hits all the right notes but is, by its very nature, devoid of the thing our children need most: humanity.
And one of the most human things we can do as parents is read to our children. And yes, I know it’s tiring! Many times have I fallen asleep whilst reading to mine, only to have them shake me awake and suggest I go to bed. But those are the moments that bind us, make memories and enable us to share an understanding of how the world works. This is the intangible magic of stories.
I think it is better that the stories you choose together, to share together, should be those that have been crafted with love, attention and care. Stories that capture the emotion of a shared moment between parent and child cannot be algorithmically forged.
I’ve spent a good few hours exploring and refining the stories that ChatGPT can write - different character prompts, age bands, situations, tones, literary devices and so on. I’m no expert yet, but I have been making stuff for children for 30 years and I was once an English teacher. The results are at best, derivative. They’re alright. Nothing special. A bit meh. Kind of a bit like some of those superfast derivative preschool animations that we see flooding Youtube. Cheap content, cheaply made and not really moving the needle for anything except the creators bank account.
Storytelling is not a science, it is an art that lives in the fibres of our evolution. For that reason, and in that context, I for one, am raging against the machine to preserve our culture and the magic that is a bewitching story and precious time as a family.