Parents obviously play an important role in bringing up and educating their children. But it’s fraught with difficulties and pitfalls. Parents tend to face this this, for the first time, without much preparation, and most would admit to botching at least some of it along the way. Many parents may work hard and don’t have as much time with their children as they’d like. Few escape from the inevitable conflicts over expectations, homework, diet, behavior and so on. So what role could AI play in all this?
Domestic broadband was the first edge of the wedge. Smartphones, tablets and laptops were suddenly in the hands of our children, which they lapped up with a passion. Now with with the introduction of smart, voice activated devices into the home, a new proxy parent may have arrived, devices that listen understand and speak back, even perform tasks.
Enter Aristotle, Mattel’s $300 Aristotle assistant. They may have called it Aristotle as both his parents died when he was young, that he was the able teacher of Alexander the Great or, that Aristotle set the whole empirical, scientific tradition that led to AI going. To be honest, what’s far more likely, is that it sounds Greek, classical and authoritative. (Aristotle's view on education here).
It’s a sort of Amazon Echo or Google Home for kids, designed for their bedrooms. To be fair, the baby alarm has been around for a long time, so tech has been playing this role in some fashion, for a some time, largely giving parents peace of mind. It is inevitable that such devices get smarter.
By smart, I mean several things. First it uses voice, to both listen and respond. That’s good. I’ve noticed, in using Amazon Echo, how much I’ve had to speak carefully and precisely to get action (see my thoughts on Echo here). There may come a time when early language development, which we know is important in child development, could be enhanced by such AI companions. It may also encourage listening skills. Secondly, it may encourage and satisfy curiosity. These devices are endlessly patient. They don’t get tired, grumpy, are alert and awake 24/7 and will get very smart. Thirdly, they may enhance parenthood in ways we have yet to imagine.
One aspect of the technology that does appeal is its personalized voice recognition. It knows the child’s voice. This could be useful. One area that could lessen embarrassment on both sides is timely sex education and advice. This could satisfy the child’s natural curiosity without the angst that child-parent communications could involve, as long as the child knows it is confidential and the parent is in control. As the child gets older, got a dispute over a fact? Amazon Echo or an Aristotle, may sort it out. Stuck with your homework, these devices will inevitably be able to help. There’s already an app, Photomaths, the app that students love and teachers hate, that you simply point at a mathematics problem, and it not only gives you the answer but all the steps in between. Few parents would be able to do this. Similarly with other subjects and languages. There’s no reason why the knowledge of the parent should limit the ability of a child to learn. The important thing is not to let such devices become substitutes for the horrific Tiger Mom experiences, hot-housing kids with endless exercises. Learning could be done in a measured fashion. And what parent wouldn’t want such a device to become an alarm, especially on school days?
The Arostotle device is designed to allow you to track feeds, wet nappies and so on, even buy the necessaries. What could also be useful is the availability of a source for good advice on parenting. I can still remember the times when one of my kids got ill - the sheer panic and worry. We had twins and would have loved good advice, mainly on what not to do – like tell the one who came out first that he was the oldest (big mistake as from that moment on he used it as a psychological weapon). In retrospect, having some intelligent advice on hand would have been useful. For example, being able to track and give you feedback as a parent when you’re overindulging them, pushing them too hard. I could see it helping parents hold back when they want to live vicariously through their children, see themselves as their kid’s best friend, think they’re perfect (sure sign is when they tell you that Josh or Sara is ‘gifted’), dealing with conflict, reminding you to be nice to them and make sure they feel loved and protected.
Now there are clearly potential problems in this area; the idea that this dehumanizes the normal parental role, that it could be used as a substitute for real love and care, the data issue and the possibility of surveillance, then governmental intervention for bad parenting. Some of this is a bit scary.
But relax, most of this has been a thought experiment. However, I’m pretty sure, that as the technology gets better, and this Mattel product already has machine learning and good natural language processing, there’s a high probability that some of the above ideas will be realized. Is there any parent who hasn’t, at some time, yearned for some help, some support? It’s easy if you have that support but what about single parents, parents with little or no family support, parents who have children with special needs? At the far end of the spectrum I could even see such support being given to mothers who suffer from post-natal depression. Pre- and post-natal advice, in situ, personalised?The promise is not to replace parents but help parents survive the inevitable storms. Time will tell.