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Ilana Ross Headshot

Teaching Our Kids to Be Robots

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Nothing makes me feel inadequate like reading the tech news. Seems like every day some young person sitting in a garage somewhere gets an idea, finds an engineer to turn it into an app, figures out how to monetize that app or sell it to Facebook, gets mired in a lawsuit about intellectual property, has embarrassing old e-mails published on Gawker, settles that lawsuit, and winds up in the pages of Forbes and hosting a Ted Talk on how their small idea started a virtual revolution.

It was my understanding that I had until I was 50 to really make it in the world, or at least to achieve the kind of financial security that allows you to buy all your fruit organic. But now, millennials are parading around Silicon Valley like they own the place and the truth is many of them do.

These twenty-something tech entrepreneurs prove that you don't need to spend years toiling in the mailroom in order to get to the top. Great success can be just a few clicks and advanced HTML code away.

It's easy to get caught up in the excitement and the possibility of this wireless world, where all good ideas are equal and you can strike it rich before you're legally allowed to rent a car.

Yet, I have such doubt about what is happening to our souls in this age of artificial intelligence. To call upon the words of journalist Syd Harris: "The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers."

I'm not one to stand in the way of human progress, without which we might never have string cheese or cronuts or American democracy. And I don't want to join a chorus of people throughout history who have irrationally feared change. I certainly wouldn't have wanted to be one of the paranoid naysayers who thought that once the Wright brothers successfully flew one plane, we'd all grow wings or that our Minnesota cousins would drop in too much.

But I lie awake at night worried we are too mired in and reliant upon technology; that we are too consumed to stop and think about its potentially damaging effects on the human experience.

When we were small, we dreamt of becoming marine biologists or firemen.

Today, we are raising kindergartners who will grow up imagining the trajectory of their lives completely differently. This summer, kids will go to start-up camps and learn to code. They will be encouraged to follow the paths of people not much older than them, whose precocious success they will try to emulate. They will be taught to simplify and look for solutions to all of life's little inconveniences. They will grow up in a world that values expediency, correctness and punctuality.

And if we're rearing children in a world that is obsessed with how technology can help us avoid error and save time, we must be careful not to completely diminish the great joy that is found in the small and happy accidents of life.

What did we ever do without our smartphones, we think to ourselves, as we tuck them in under our pillows at night and carry them into the bathroom with us in the morning. Our gadgets are part and parcel of our mundane lives. They tell us when to get up and what to wear; which roads to avoid; how to book a flight or buy a book without ever leaving our living room. There are apps that do our laundry and order us take-out, and do everything else to provide for the perfect Friday night with our cats.

Our devices take care of all the details, short of brushing our hair for us. Of course, some smartphones don't think we need to brush our hair and are programmed to remind us we are naturally beautiful.

It's tempting to think that we will one day be able to avoid all the small indignities of life that punctuate our existence: forgetting the words, missing the bus, stepping in a puddle, spilling a latte down the front of our new J.Crew button down that we bought to look like a professional.

But, as they keep developing iOS systems and Android updates to meet our every need, we may lose what makes us the most unique species second to the yeti crab: the ability to be wrong, to crash, to wait, and to wonder without consequence.

What did we ever do without our smartphones? We lived! We frolicked! We mistook strangers for friends and got on the wrong bus which took us somewhere great anyway.

Some of the best parts of ordinary life are when things go slightly awry, the kind of serendipity that only arises out of a pure mishap. If we never miss another light or run another stop sign or let the elevators close on our hands, then how will we ever meet Hugh Grant?

As humans, we are accident-prone. We walk into things, we fall down, we crash into each other and break hearts and bones. We burst into tears in public and our cars stall. We forget our umbrellas and confuse the rain for a sign that the heavens are unsympathetic. We mix up ingredients and names and end up making brownies that taste like dish soap.

We lie. We make things up. We get things wrong, from directions to baseball statistics to the name of our first-born cat.

But it is those moments of error that cause us to think, to re-examine and to explore. Technology can deprive us of these times of reflection and creation.

And it's not just me saying this. Scientists have proven it! When we let our technology do too much of the planning and thinking for us, we use our brains less and cause what scientists call biological atrophy. We may actually be getting stupider for all of our "smart devices."

In all this so called advancement, we are losing what differentiated us from the start: The ability to make a great big mess.

Who will we be if we aren't the the thinking, neurotic, irritated, hungry, problem-solving beings we've been since Cro-Magnon times?

Perhaps we'll become more like the computers who serve us -- boring and predictable and vulnerable to fates worse than the heart-bleed bug.

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