I'm a tech-phobic parent — not exactly the sort of person who gets excited about the idea of letting a machine watch my children. But when I heard about the newly developed iPal — a doe-eyed, 3-foot-tall robot companion — I couldn't help but see the potential advantages to struggling parents of young kids. So many of us are crippled by the costs of childcare, sleep deprived and, frankly, bored. (You try coming up with 37 different scenarios for "The Wheels on the Bus" before breakfast...)
Is it really so crazy to think you could go on Amazon and pick up a pint-sized android, complete with surveillance cam, to keep your kids amused, inspired, and safe for a few hours every day? No one is suggesting that we hand squishy newborns over to cooing robo-nannies and walk out the door whistling — at least not yet. iPal is designed exclusively for the three-plus set and it's a glorified toy rather than a robot sitter. You shouldn't actually leave a child — of any age — in its care.
Still, it could be a game-changer for many parents. Stay-at-home moms like me, who also freelance but can't afford the childcare necessary to function at full pelt, could really benefit. These days, if my 3-year-old is in need of amusement and I'm on deadline, I'll throw her an iPad loaded up with shows and games. It's not ideal but I console myself with the fact that she comes away knowing stuff about letters and dinosaurs.
Now imagine if I could throw her an entire robot — one that could interact on demand. Wouldn't that be preferable? Sure, iPal is essentially just a tablet with limbs and a decorative head, but its inventors claim it can field hard science questions, like "Why is the sun hot?" Frankly, I'd struggle to answer that, so if some know-it-all android thinks it can do better, have at it.
Most parents, rightly, would balk at the idea of leaving the house while a glorified toaster babysits, which I'm sure is where this cyber-meets-kinder experiment is headed. This first generation of care-bots is rudimentary but, down the line, perhaps they'll be marketed to look after our kids while parents and other human carers are absent. Would that really be such a bad thing? Maybe not.
After all, let's not forget that humans, whether they're parental guardians or paid professionals, are rammed with faulty circuitry and make bad decisions every day. We can be temperamental, neglectful, and need regular bathroom breaks. A mechanical babysitter doesn't need any time off. It's also unlikely to be a sex offender and will never lose patience when your little darling demands to read the same dull storybook about a lost puppy over and over. And robots, I presume, don't flip out and swear loudly when they accidentally step on a Lego brick. What these droids lack in compassion they'll make up for with their pre-programmed encyclopedic knowledge of everything, and their unfalteringly positive attitude. It's a trade off that demands proper pragmatic consideration rather than ridicule.
As with self-driving cars, we just need to shift our risk assessment criteria. Today, robot-guided vehicles seem scary. I'd sooner negotiate an interstate on a Fisher Price tricycle than set foot in a car that claims to be able to drive without a licensed human at the wheel. And, I'll be honest: I'm secretly relieved that my own kids will probably be too old to benefit by the time android nannies are the new must-have parenting accessory, and Disney remakes Mary Poppins with an umbrella-wielding robot as the lead character.
But in a few years, as the technology improves and the safety statistic roll in, I bet I'll get my head around it.