Nannybot will save us!
Babysitting robots, once the province of speculative fiction, are on the market. They make conversation, recognize faces and keep track of kids. They're not a replacement for TV or games, but for personal care — and some researchers worry that kids will be harmed.
"If you leave a small child in front of the TV, you have to keep popping in to make sure they're OK. But these are so safe that people will eventually leave their children in the care of robots," said Noel Sharkey, a University of Sheffield roboticist.
But I welcome it. Here's a dirty little parenting secret that isn't a secret to anyone who actually does the work of parenting: a lot of the work of childcare is dull, tedious, and unfulfilling. And dull, tedious, and unfulfilling work is exactly what robots are for. Our current practice of using exploitable immigrant labor instead of robots rests on a foundation of economic systemic inequality, and I don't want my access to cheap labor to have such morally tainted preconditions.
With robots, solving the problem of poverty won't deprive us of cheap labor. Which should make goverments and powerful people more willing to address the issue of poverty. Of course, the existence of robots capable of doing work would pose an enormous economic threat to workers who could be replaced by them. I think the proper solution is probably more socialism: as robots replace more and more people, the resulting efficiencies lead to more profits which are taxed and then directed towards social programs. Yes, you can train people to do the jobs that the robots can't do, but frankly the robots are getting smarter a lot faster than we are, and probably within a hundred years there won't be anything robots can't do better than humans (unless technological progress grinds to a halt due to civilizational collapse or there's some unforseen limit to the relentless onrush superior technology). I may be a few decades off, but in historical terms this isn't much time at all.
OK, back to the topic of robot nannies: If robots could do some of those things like changing diapers and preventing Quinn from yanking the lights off the Christmas tree, I'd be able to spend more time playing, talking, wrestling, and doing cool stuff with Quinn. Or maybe I'd just blog more. Hmm. Maybe all those tedious tasks are good, because they force us to spend lots of time doing stuff with our children. And maybe that's good. Maybe instead of "robot nanny", the paradigm should be "robot parent helper": a robot that hangs around with you and your children and makes childcare more fun for both parent and adult.
Now I don't think the robots in this article (or this longer one) are actually capable of providing childcare. They are just sophisticated entertainment devices for now. They can't even clean up a spill or provide food, much less change a diaper or tell if a child is sick and call you. That will be a few decades off. So I don't think the human vs. nanny dilemma has arrived yet. But it's coming soon.
But here's a thought: all of these articles are predicated on the assumtion that spending time with a human caregiver is better than spending time with a robot. But once we can make an adequate nannybot, it would only be a short period of time before a nannybot that could kick your ass at parenting emerged: an infinitely patient construct that could read your child better than you, instantly download the best child development research into its brain, never had to go to the bathroom, never got bored with repetitive entertainments, never lost its temper (unless it felt it needed to in order to socialize the child correctly), could instantly diagnose every known malady and administer proper treatment.
Pretty soon, raising your own child would be like growing your own food: fun as a hobby, but not anything anyone sane would actually depend on to survive.
In the bigger picture, we must ask: What is humanity going to do with itself when its own creations render it completely obsolete? This may not happen in my lifetime. But soon, soon, soon. In the meantime, back to work.