There’s a scene that unnerves me from the AMC show Humans.
The plot revolves around a potential future where a group of “synths” who look identical to humans gain consciousness and seek liberation from their subservient societal roles as owned property. In the first season, the lead synth character Anita is assigned as a nanny to a family whose human mother struggles with alcoholism. After being away from the house a number of nights in a row, the mother comes home and tells her nursery-school aged daughter she’d like to read her a bedtime story.
“No,” says the daughter. “I want Anita to read to me.”
No robot overlords. No maniacal android laughter. Just a mic drop of one little girl’s truth—that she prefers a robot nanny to her human mom.
I can understand where the girl is coming from. The parents are struggling with a divorce, and the stressful nature of the mom’s work (determining the future of humans and synths) means she’s away from home a great deal. Compared to her human parents, Anita the synth is always-on and always patient, loving, and present.
In other words—Anita is designed to be the type of parent no human could ever live up to.
When it comes to roles that could be replaced by machines, the job of parenting is often not discussed. But if a focus on efficiency is valued above human caregiving in our future, it’s possible that AI toys, personal assistants, or companion robots could someday replace humans as parents.
The big question shouldn’t be whether AIs or robotic caregivers could be better than human parents—they inevitably will be, at least in some ways. It’s whether parents should have a legal right to raise their own children instead of the machines.
This is why humans need to claim their right to parent before they lose the chance.
The nature of nurture
Many devices are already being designed and inserted into children’s lives with the potential of replicating human caregiving. This includes areas such as education, nanny-oriented duties, and teaching manners to kids. While it may seem far-fetched that any one product or service could genuinely replace a human parent or caregiver, in aggregate, we’ve already done a pretty good job at securing ourselves a date night via our devices: We can check our children’s security using IoT-connected cameras, patrol their phone use using parental controls, and, of course, there’s always FaceTime.
But parenting-by-proxy is training kids to find their solace in screens and silicon; Anita becomes the logical next step. For now, however, most seem to believe that humans are still preferred for the emotional aspect of caregiving.
“All of the design that goes into these devices to make them so engaging, so alluring, so addictive, it’s all meant to generate the same dopamine rush that we get from human contact,” says Ramona Pringle, the director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University and author of the upcoming A is for Algorithm, B is for Baby. “The best digital experiences are, in a sense, trying to replicate what happens in our brains when we get a hug from our moms. So, human caregiving or nurturing is still the thing we long for most, by default.”
While parents may utilize a device to enhance one aspect of their parenting—such as using a Pepper robot to enhance memory via storytelling—how kids bond with a system as a part of their learning experience is based on their own perceptions and preferences. As the article “When your kid tries to say ‘Alexa’ before ‘Mama’” from the Washington Post notes, “Those opposing Mattel’s Aristotle highlighted that a voice assistant in the nursery could hurt parental bonding, if the child considered the voice assistant to be their first playmate or a source of comfort.”
It’s not up to a parent to determine who or what a child considers their source of comfort; any mom or dad who has tried to retire a beloved but stain-covered blankie knows that kids cling to what they love. Where a playmate is a teddy bear or imaginary friend, we’re in familiar territory. But when multiple algorithmically laden devices replicating human caregiving are synced to the cloud and interact with millions of children on IoT mainframes, we’ve got a new parenting paradigm to consider.
“For factual information, tech will outperform many parents,” says Margaret Morris, a clinical psychologist and author of Left to Our Own Devices: Outsmarting Smart Technology to Reclaim Our Relationships, Health, and Focus. “But parenting is essentially about nurturing, not answers and recommendations”
Where human nurturing is available, positive psychology and neuroscience demonstrate that physical contact and proximity between children and caregivers improves things like cognition and overall emotional wellbeing. “Human bonding is essential for development,” Morris continues. “The strong attachments people form with tech can be channeled to strengthen human relationships.”
In other words, human parents have “organic love” on their side—at least for now. But an AI caregiver has inexhaustible energy, infinite patience, and ubiquitous access to great parenting advice at all times via direct interaction with the web.
So if technology has the ability to be a straight-up better parent than you—and your child prefers it—then what does that then mean for the future of parenting?
Baby monitors vs. parent monitors
Our devices are already watching us. Personal assistants may be recording a conversation or wearables may be linked to how we receive health coverage. What we aren’t recognizing yet is how devices may be used to gauge our ability—and right—to parent.
One thing nobody tells you about having a child is how much you’ll feel judged about your parenting choices. Whether it’s discussing sleep techniques, school choices, or baby diets, there are dozens of times another parent will raise an eyebrow based on how you parent your child.
New parents often feel judged or worry how they’ll be held responsible for their methods of child rearing. It won’t be long until our affective-computing-enabled devices could start providing weekly reports connected to how we’re doing as parents—and potentially to child protective services, if our behavior is considered a risk.
On the one hand, this is a positive idea. A person who opts in to an app or home-monitoring device to increase emotional awareness could be encouraged toward positive parenting. But when businesses and governments gain access to this information without clear consent or transparency, we’re headed toward a future where parenting could be arbitrarily quantified and legislated.
“The very risk of monitored parenthood guided by algorithmic and AI-driven systems defining what ‘good upbringing’ is problematic on all fronts—ethically, morally, socially, and culturally,” says Christina J. Colclough, the director of Platform and Agency Workers, Digitalization, and Trade for UNI Global Union, an organization representing more than 20 million workers. “In its most extreme form, we could fear that ‘distant [algorithmic] parenting’ actually pushes the parent further and further away from their children. And if parents aren’t needed for their child, what might happen to our hard-earned rights to parental leave, holidays, or decent working time?”
Part of this alienation may come from a Black Mirror-like sense of our parenting skills as humans being monitored and scored. Picture hosting a birthday party and getting an aggregate score from the kids who just left, much the same way riders currently rate their Uber drivers. Or a Yelp-like app that people could use at playgrounds to snarkily rate parents who may not seem attentive enough with their kids. When community-level ire gives way to parent-ranking shaming, how will these interactions ladder up to potential social and legal ramifications?
This kind of surveillance is already present in the workplace. A recent Financial Times article, “Spy in the screen reveals what workers are worth,” notes that “Your company has long been able to monitor your emails and your idle web browsing, but a group of tech start-ups now say they can crunch all the data to reveal exactly how useful you really are.”
Other companies take it a step further. NPR reported how UPS tracks their drivers’ movements in an attempt to improve productivity. As the article notes, “just one minute per driver per day over the course of a year adds up to $14.5 million.” But the stress for the workers has also increased. A UPS driver interviewed for the piece describes his feelings about driving a truck full of sensors that record every one of his and his vehicle’s moves: “You know, it does feel like Big Brother.”
When it comes to technology replicating caregiving, this same mentality could begin to make parents feel as if their productivity doesn’t live up to technoutopian norms or that they aren’t providing the kind nurturing devices could provide.
But who decides when they may get fired?
Will the real parent please stand up?
For many, the stress and labor of child-rearing pales in comparison to the joy and deep purpose of raising their kids. While it’s laudable to want to help relieve the burdens of parents via technology, it’s more critical to inspire them to be the best caregivers they can be. They should be empowered to give the time necessary to invest in their kids, despite interactions being challenging, messy, or plain-old human.
I’m not here to tell people how they should experience love. I’m not here to decry technology or the potential for nurturing via machines, especially where the alternative is isolation.
I’m here to say being a parent has provided me the greatest joy of my life.
I’m here to fight for those who wish to experience the opportunity to provide human caregiving based on their values and choice.
And I’m here to fight tooth and nail against any metric that states productivity and exponential profits are greater measures of a society’s progress than nurturing our young people.
“Let’s not sleepwalk into this blinded by our ever-growing desire for convenience,” Christina Colclough says. “Let’s protect our rights to be human, and our children’s rights to abundant love and care.”
It’s time to value caregiving over consumerism to fully embrace the messy, honorable, and exquisite job of being a human parent. That way, despite the amazing technology supporting human caregiving, people will treat parenting as the sacred right and privilege it deserves to be.