Welcoming the robo-nannies

Digital natives are repopulating the world — and they’re putting a new spin on parenting.

After all, the average age of a first-time mother in the U.S. is 26.4 years old, roughly the same age as the internet. As the first generation of parents steeped in digital technology from birth, millennials are at ease with the idea that tech will be enmeshed in their children’s lives in ways we can’t yet imagine. In fact, millennial moms and dads expect digital technology — from robo-nannies to virtual best friends — to be woven into every aspect of their kids' existence.

Companies aren’t missing any opportunity to woo tech-loving young parents. The four-day Baby Tech Summit exhibit at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month featured a bluetooth-enabled baby bottle, a sensor-laden car seat that alerts parents to unsafe conditions when their child is with a caregiver, and strollers with GPS. Wordl, one of the summit’s award winners, uses machine learning, a phone app and a (waterproof) clip-on device to monitor a baby’s learning environment and offer parents personalized tips for brain development.

The technologies that millennials expect to deliver the most benefits are artificial intelligence, ubiquitous sensors and Big Data analytics, according to a recent survey of 600 young parents sponsored by the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

Some 80 percent of the respondents expect AI tutors to help their children learn faster than they did. Around 39 percent have “a great deal” or “complete” trust in AI’s ability to diagnose and treat their kids when they get sick. Nearly half said they’d bring home a robotic pet for their child instead of a real one.

“We can see a lot of optimism woven into this survey,” says Kayne McGladrey, a cybersecurity expert and IEEE member. “Things that were unthinkable 10 years ago are being accepted as commonplace. And that trend will continue.”

Broad hope for a better future

This rosy outlook is at odds with the concerns of a number of tech luminaries who’ve gone public about the dangers of AI. Tesla and SpaceX chief Elon Musk and AI expert Michael Vassar are among those who warn that, unchecked, AI could spell the end of the human race. Along with Y Combinator founder Sam Altman, Musk created a billion-dollar nonprofit dedicated to making AI safer by ensuring that humans don’t lose control of systems that could become smarter than us.  

Still, the sunny sentiment displayed in the IEEE’s survey appears to be widespread. A PwC survey of AI experts and 2,500 consumers and business leaders last year found broad hope for a better future because of the technology. Almost two-thirds said AI “will help solve complex problems that plague modern society,” such as improving education and finding cures for diseases.

“Things that were unthinkable 10 years ago are being accepted as commonplace. And that trend will continue.”

Cybersecurity expert Kayne McGladrey

If these results are representative, public consensus is skewing toward trust in technology. McGladrey attributes this to consumers’ increased access to AI products and having intuitive experiences with them. “People have positive feelings when they have a good interaction with Siri,” the voice of Apple’s AI digital assistant, he says.

Educational boost

The IEEE and PwC polls also reflect hope that AI will improve both childhood and adult education. Around three-quarters of the IEEE’s respondents said they’d consider an AI tutor for their children. And 58 percent of PwC’s said they could see AI replacing human tutors in the next five years.

Parents were also less worried if AI — and not their children — were to take the wheel when their teens learn to drive, according to the IEEE survey. In fact, with the market for artificial intelligence projected to grow to $70 billion by 2020, McGladrey predicts that self-driving cars will so transform life that when today’s children reach the age at which their parents got driving permits, they’ll marvel that that was ever necessary.

“We’ll see an interesting change in what’s considered normal,” he says. “Will driver's licenses become obsolete? And if so, what will become the default form of personal ID?”

Rose Luckin, an AI architect, consultant and professor at University College London, believes strongly in the possibilities of AI. But she sees the technology not as a replacement for human teachers but as a way to greatly augment their abilities.

“AI is about understanding big problems,” she says. “How do people learn? How do they process a math problem? How do employees improve over time? To answer these kinds of questions, we need to use Big Data and AI together to open up what’s happening to the individual learner.”

Let prudence rule

Still, Luckin cautions that overly optimistic public views of AI and other technologies should be viewed skeptically, as a reflection of media hype. Even if rising generations are more accepting of AI’s possibilities, she says, everyone needs to remain vigilant about the risks of becoming overly reliant on it — including forgetting once-critical skills by outsourcing complex mental tasks to AI.

McGladrey also recommends thoughtfulness. Rather than some of the more sci-fi ideas that AI could turn against humanity, he is most concerned with how the technology could impact people psychologically. For one thing, advanced devices could be used as the next status symbol differentiating those who have it from those who don’t — yet another case of “us” versus “them” in an already technologically divided world.

So even as the next wave of parents embraces AI as a tool to create a better future, partnering that optimism with prudent safeguards is likely the best bet of all.


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