Practicing Humane Parenting

How might we enable AI to help rather than replace parents?

Photo by Andrea De Santis on Unsplash

Can a robot parent better than a human? What are the consequences of utilizing bots to facilitate the soft, humane skills of parenting? Do we consider deeply enough what tools we buy for our kids and for ourselves? If we are tech makers, do we think through what we are making before glomming onto the solution space? If you contemplate questions like this, read on.

Like most Americans, I spend more hours than I’d like to admit each day staring at a screen. I like to think I use my hardware as tools, and justify my existence as a “maker” of digital experiences, not merely a consumer of them. But whatever my rationalized brain thinks of its choices, the truth is that I am as inside the Matrix as the next guy/gal/person/child.

I have not yet decided to bite the bullet and pay for ad-free YouTube. I have consciously chosen to maintain my ad flooded space in that video streaming realm in order, I say to myself, to keep pace with all the potentially cool new offerings on the market. If I blocked every ad on every device (as I do on my desktop work computer) how would I ever know about what companies “out there” exist for me to purchase things from? I also like to see what ads I get served up to see how the algorithms interpret my usage patterns, and therefore me, as a consumer. On YouTube I get lots of ads about master classes, educational tools, software tools, vacation options, and fitness gear, programs, and classes. Cool. It knows I want to be smarter, fitter, and take breaks in far away places. That seems accurate.

But then one day two weeks ago an ad for “Meet Moxie” popped up after my yoga video. Please realize that if you click the button below to watch this ad, get through it in its entirety and decide you want to purchase or rent this object, I have embedded a feature into the link that allows you to purchase the bot that will immediately trigger a call to your local child protective services organization. The moment you hit “Pay Now” you can expect a knock from Johnny Law whereby they will promptly sweep your beautiful child(ren) away until further notice.

They call this product a “robot for social-emotional learning.” I don’t need to rant about this product. Lots of eloquent folks have already done this for me, including Joy Pullman in her article, “This $1,500 Robot Will Talk to Kids So Parents Don’t Have To.” Thanks, Joy!

Technology needs to ENABLE better HUMAN EXPERIENCE, not REPLACE IT. Certainly an argument can be made (and clearly has already been made as evidenced by the existence of this commercially available product) for the possibility of tech providing the social-emotional care that some human parents are not successfully providing to their children.

What we need to deeply contemplate as parents is, why did we choose to become parents and how can we do that best?

Yes, parenting is incredibly challenging, expensive, life-draining at times, but it is arguably one of the richest human experiences. Period. It’s not for everyone, but if you are fortunate enough to be a parent, you know what I’m talking about. No pontification needed. And even if you have decided to roll childless (lucky dawgs!) you were spawned BY parents who loved you as best they could, and it’s likely that you know what good and bad parenting feels like. No human being alive is exempt from this topic. Parents. We are them. We know them. Or both.

Enter Moxie. Now while I appreciate that the folks at Embodied are intending to help children get the comfort and ability to have “meaningful play everyday” and “encourage children to engage with family and friends.” But can’t we do this as human parents? Are these not some of the most important human qualities to teach and have the medium of conveyance be US? Human facilitators? Perhaps this is antiquated thinking. I mean, bots, VR and AI can do almost anything. If we can dream it up, we can build it! But..

So let’s say that Moxie frees up 2.743 hours per day for me and my husband to not have to read bedtime stories to our kids or ask our kids how their day was at school. Now I will have more time to cook dinner, practice yoga, work an extra hour in the evening. At the end of the day, I will have a child who talks to a personified machine about their day, their dreams, their hopes and their fears instead of me. Moxie gets that first hand experience of my child while I am off doing other, more important tasks.

Do we really want a world where programmable objects, albeit well-intended ones, are the primary interactors/interactresses with our children? It’s bad enough that I am too insecure, and probably too lazy, to homeschool my kids. Instead, I leave this in the hands of people who I view to be more skilled, qualified individuals. But at least they are people. Teachers. Humans with lives who can share their human experiences with my children to help them grow.

So let’s take this Moxie scenario to its logical extreme. Let’s say we decide to purchase a bot for every child on earth, ages 5–10 (“No child left behind!”). Imagine that each child interacts with their bot daily for 1–5 years. The folks at Embodied would likely argue that we would have a world full of socially-emotionally aware children who all felt heard by their bots and knew how to make eye contact with their bots. “Sara” provided a testimonial about how Moxie helped her child by being consistent, soft, non-reactive, and responding with nothing but positivity. Brilliant! But do we really want kids to learn that robots are more gentle and kind than moms and dads are? Do we want our children to more easily and deeply connect with a bot than they do with us? Yes, I am “othering” here. Us vs. Them. Humans vs. Machines. But let’s not forget that WE make the BOTS! WE write the algorithms! Why are we so much more invested in writing the algorithms for external objects than for our own human hardwiring? Have we simply given up? Are we so fallible that we have decided to throw in the towel and externalize EVERY solution set?

Clearly we offload much of human learning to machines anyway in every format conceivable. The pandemic has showed us how great we are at enabling tech to stand in for in-person connection. But hasn’t it also showed us that there is no replacement for physical human beings coming into close proximity with one another, locking eyes, seeing fully expressive faces, and living life within and through our own non-tech mediated bodies? Have we become so bankrupt emotionally that the human skills of parenting are better off loaded to a programmed object?

It’s hard. I know. I try daily and fail. But you know what? I get up, apologize to my kids when I know I can do better and correct. That’s it. And they need to see us do that. They need to know what we are error-prone humans who love them enough to grow with them and try harder tomorrow. It’s that simple. And if you really think that paying $1000 + $40-$60/month after the first year to keep this object in your life for your 5–10 year old is a good choice, then please don’t be surprised when you hear that knock on your door. You don’t deserve to get to keep your kids. I’m coming for them.

Ok, I won’t come. If you chose to buy Moxie to help with your soft skill parenting, please do it with great care and use it to not only help your child, but to also help you become a better parent. And please read a book. Call a family member. Call a friend. And most importantly, hug your kid.

Meaningful Life Advocate, UX Designer, Educator, Performer, Mother