New technology offers risks and rewards.
What is Generative AI?
Generative AI (GAI) is a branch of artificial intelligence that automates original content generation. It can write essays, poems, song lyrics, articles and scripts. It can draw images and cartoons, create videos, answer questions, write computer code, and more. In most cases, you use GAI by typing in a prompt and having it respond. You can then “chat” with the GAI and ask follow-up questions or requests. Sometimes, it feels like you’re talking with a person, but it is important to remember that it’s just a machine.
Popular services include ChatGPT, Google Gemini and Microsoft Copilot. But generative AI will soon be embedded into many other products and services, such as Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Apple Siri, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. Whether it’s a stand-alone service or integrated into a product, GAI uses a “large language model” (LLM), which is an essential part of any GAI system. These LLM models are trained on billions of pieces of information, mainly from the internet, and can respond to questions or commands issued in plain language.
GAI has already shown itself to be incredibly useful for planning vacations, answering questions, researching, getting product information, learning about medical conditions, understanding data, and generating images, videos and computer code. It can even write customized on-demand poetry and song lyrics. But that’s just the beginning. GAI has the potential to impact nearly every aspect of life and nearly all types of products and services. A 2023 survey conducted on behalf of the Family Online Safety Institute found that 67% of US teens had used or tried GAI. Some GAI systems have minimum age requirements to protect the safety and privacy of young users. Parents and teens should know those requirements and only use age-appropriate services.
Personal Uses for GAI
- Generate images, videos and content
- Vacation planning
- Entertainment (including finding interesting content)
- Help in shopping and purchasing decisions
- Help in writing letters, memos and documents
- Help with school work when appropriate and approved by teachers
- Creating images and text for greeting cards
- Home decor and visualization
- Language translation
- Financial planning
- Generating budgets and savings plans
Generative AI in Education
GAI systems can be used to create essays, images, videos or other content that can be misrepresented as original work for school. This presents challenges for educators, parents and students. However, it can also help in the creative process by giving students and teachers ideas for projects and helping answer difficult questions. It can also help brainstorm or narrow a research focus, assuming you can verify the information with reputable sources.
Teachers are divided as to whether to allow their students to use it for homework or classwork, but many do, and many teachers use it for designing and organizing course materials, differentiating lesson plans based on students’ learning differences, and helping to spark curiosity and creativity.
One of the concerns about GAI and education is the possibility of students using it to produce papers, essays and other content. While that is a risk, teachers need to emphasize that while it may be legitimate to use it for brainstorming, it is not a substitute for original work. Aside from issues of authenticity and plagiarism, there are situations where it can interfere with the educational outcome of an assignment and the student’s ability to develop and improve their own skills.
Educators might want to think about how GAI can help enhance their students’ work in ways that encourage creativity and original content.
Students need to check with their teachers about the permissible uses of GAI. Some educators or schools ban it entirely, while others allow or even encourage students to use it for research. If GAI is allowed by their teachers, students should understand their ethical responsibility to be honest about their use of GAI, cite their sources and ensure the accuracy and authenticity of their work. It’s also important to comply with age restrictions on GAI services and other online platforms.
Known and Unknown Risks
Like every useful technology, there are both known and unknown risks, including:
Accuracy. A response may seem logical and true, but large language models can sometimes generalize and include statements and “facts” that are not factual, sometimes called “hallucinations.” One partial mitigation to this problem is knowing the source of the information, but not all GAI systems report where they got their information. Before relying on information from GAI, confirm it with a known and trusted source such as a government website, an academic journal or a well-respected news outlet.
There is also the risk of disinformation based on malicious intent, such as bad actors training systems with inaccurate or malicious information as well as using GAI tools to create false content, including “deep fake” images, videos and audio.
Harassment, impersonation and hate speech. GAI systems can be used to create text, images or videos that can embarrass, defame or harass individuals or groups of people. This can include creating images or videos of people in situations or activities they have not engaged in. It can also be used to generate text, video or images that impersonate, bully and harass people or spread stereotypes and false narratives against groups of people. But GAI is also being used to help combat harassment, hate speech, the sharing of non-consensual images, child sexual abuse material and other harms.
Bias and discrimination. GAI systems are trained on data sets, and if that data contains biases, it may be reflected in the answers or content generated.
Ethical and legal issues. GAI raises numerous ethical and legal challenges, including the authenticity of content, intellectual property rights, disclosure of private information, plagiarism concerns and much more. These issues affect all users, including children and teens, in their personal, work and school lives.
Rogue GAI sites and apps. While there are many legitimate and ethical GAI services, there is the risk of scammers or those with a hidden agenda creating sites and apps designed to deceive users with misleading information or attempt to gain information that can be used to harm them as well as apps with content that is inappropriate for children. When in doubt, do some research, including reading reviews and ratings, to determine if the GAI service is legitimate and appropriate.
Privacy and security. It’s important to be cautious about what you enter into a GAI system. It’s best to avoid entering confidential personal information such as social security numbers and financial information. If you are going to use a GAI system to enter confidential information such as a medical or mental health condition, be sure to use a service from a known and reputable company. Be aware that companies can sometimes be compelled to disclose information through a subpoena or a similar legal process.
Job insecurity and workplace transformation. Automation has contributed to eliminating, creating and improving jobs, and GAI is no exception. However, historically, automation has also contributed to the growth of new industries and new jobs, as well as a higher standard of living, better health and other benefits for society. It is too early to know the positive and negative implications of GAI, but it will definitely impact future job opportunities.
Unknown risks. Just as in the early stages of the automobile, the internet and other technologies, there may be risks that are not initially apparent. It’s important for all stakeholders, including industry, governments, consumers, educators, parents and users of all ages, to look for possible risks associated with generative AI.
Try out GAI for free. The best way to learn about GAI is to simply try it. You can try free and easy-to-use services, including ChatGPT, Google Gemini and Microsoft Copilot, and, for creating images, Imagine with Meta AI. There are also some more advanced services that you can discover by asking one of the GAI services to “recommend other GAI services.” And don’t forget to look for GAI features in apps you may already use.
Final Thoughts for Parents
Generative AI is a major paradigm shift in technology, on a par with the creation of the World Wide Web and the invention of the smartphone. It can change how we acquire and share knowledge, how we create content and how we work and live.
It is currently in its infancy and will evolve significantly over the next few months and years in ways we might not even be able to imagine. While we don’t want to contribute to any hype, it clearly has the potential to be enormously impactful.
The risks discussed in this guide are well known to researchers who are also exploring other potential risks and working with industry to find ways to reduce risks. Governments are also getting involved with new regulations to protect the public against the misuse of GAI. And, just as important, the public is starting to learn about the possibilities, limitations and risks of GAI to help ensure appropriate use.
We urge parents to become familiar with GAI and talk about it as a family. Parents should ask teens what they know about it, whether and how they use it and if it’s being used at school. Teens should discuss their use of GAI with parents and siblings and make sure they’re only using appropriate services and that they adhere to any rules or policies established by their schools or individual teachers. As with all connected technologies, be aware of privacy policies, use strong passwords and use the technology in ways that don’t harm yourself or others.
Everyone in the family can use it together to plan a vacation (it’s great for road trips), evaluate a family purchase, plan a meal (tell it what you have on hand, and it will come up with a recipe), and so much more. Make sure that everyone understands that it doesn’t always get things right, but that’s no reason to shun it as long as you fact-check important information it provides. And have fun with it. It can even write customized jokes, though we can’t guarantee you’ll find them funny.