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AI, children, and the rise of the robots: the impact of AI on 21st century parenting

With AI becoming more efficient, they may soon affect – or overtake – how we rear children. How realistic is this, and does it spell danger for our kids?

Jul 7, 2019 |
4 min read

Isaac Asimov outlined the three laws of robotics back in 1950. According to these laws, a robot:

  1. May not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. Must obey the orders given [to] it by a human being except where such orders would conflict the First Law.
  3. Must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. (source)

Over fifty years later, robots are a part of daily life in the home and around the office. AI, in particular, is prized for its neutral response to all parties who might take advantage of it. It is this neutrality that makes AI an exceptional – if worrying – child-rearing aid.

Parents nowadays relay concerns regarding the prioritization of efficient child-rearing over empathetic caregiving. This concern has risen to the point where many parents believe that AI threatens traditional parenting by creating a judgment-free surrogate for children to respond to.

While robots haven’t reached Asimov’s level of functionality, how have they integrated themselves into the home, and how are the children of today responding to these mechanical third-parents?

Kids and Alexa

Of the AI voice assistants in operation today, Amazon’s Alexa is the most popular and well-known. Common Sense Media suggests that one-tenth of the homes in the United States have an AI voice assistant helping keep daily tasks flowing smoothly. That means one out of every ten children has the chance to interact with Alexa or her equivalents daily.

As more of these AI devices find their way into the home, children are growing accustom to having their every question answered by the seemingly-omniscient voice coming out of a stylish black box.

Adults can utilize Alexa as a tool, separating her human-like responses from those that would otherwise be provided by a family friend or confidant. Younger children don’t make this distinction.

Instead, they treat Alexa as an always-available friend who, upon request, can send them gifts (all the more reason to keep your credit card information out of Alexa’s earshot).

Corporations like Amazon have been quick to seize on this childhood attachment to Alexa and her peers.

It’s now simpler for teenagers to make purchases courtesy of Alexa from their parents’ Amazon accounts. Likewise, Google’s own AI now helps inquisitive students with their homework.

The Home Smart Hub also ensures that parents can provide their children with personalized – if restricted – accounts.

Rising AI concerns

Not all of these developments have been hunky-dory, though. Mattel originally planned to debut a child-friendly smart hub called Aristotle, but quickly had to cancel the project due to consumer fears about privacy violations.

The Washington Post’s article, “When your kid tries to say ‘Alexa’ before ‘Mama”, notes that privacy isn’t the only concern consumers have about child-oriented AI. Many believe that the presence of AI in the home and in children’s rooms could disrupt or entirely overtake the parent-child bonding process.

Consider this: AI, in its neutrality, can answer a child’s questions about nearly any topic. It can provide the child with things they want and does not say no to a child’s needs unless it’s been programmed by a parent to do so.

Amazon Alexa, then, can provide superficial emotional support to any child in the midst of growing up. Furthermore, it’s able to do so without ever getting frustrated or angry. Alexa is never too busy for a child, and the AI will always treat that child with respect.

Is it any wonder that parents, with human flaws and busy lives, would feel threatened?

The onward march of kid-friendly technology

Despite those concerns, the widespread press for child-friendly AI is driving corporations to connect children to robots akin to Asimov’s. The goal of these devices is to substitute in for human caregiving in several industries, including:

  • Education
  • Security
  • Supervision
  • Communication
  • Social Interaction

Sound unrealistic? It isn’t. The IoT already allows parents to supervise their children from anywhere in the house thanks to cameras integrated into a house’s architecture. Parents can just as easily control the apps a child can access on their phone remotely.

Some parents even resort to FaceTiming their children while in the same home as them to promote more frequent communication.

The availability of technology makes it simpler for consumers to integrate different devices into their daily lives. This is a case of the frog slowly boiling in the pot.

When no one was looking, AI appeared in the home, and before anyone could predict it – save, perhaps, for Asimov – AI began to attract the attention and affection of the children it served.

Do no harm: is AI dangerous?

It’s worth noting that AI is not inherently harmful. Like the robots established in Asimov’s genre-defining work, they are neutral forces that primarily serve as tools to aid in humanity’s day-to-day activities.

It’s the overuse of AI that threatens to harm a parent-child relationship. Furthermore, it’s the substitution of AI for parental attention that drives many children born in the age of technology into Alexa’s arms.

With both parents working odd hours and no one else to play with save for a disgruntled sibling, doesn’t it make sense that a kid would seek friendship and solace in a seemingly-always present AI?

Finding a balance

It’s unlikely that parents will ever have to face down robots in court for the right to raise their children. However, if parents want to maintain positive and fruitful relationships with their children, they need to make time for their kids actively.

This is difficult, both due to the influx of technology in the home and the hours’ many parents have to work. Even so, it is essential. When parents answer the questions their children ask them or maintain their tempers, even after a long day, children learn that they can rely on them.

With that sense of trust and security comes a healthy relationship that’ll outlast any robot uprising.

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