In my last blog post I speculated about how kids would be born and raised in the centuries to come. Will children still be conceived and gestated within human bodies or in test tubes and vats? If we manage to extend the lifespan of existing people indefinitely, will we even want to bring any new human beings into the world?
What about for the rest of this century? How will child care evolve?
Much has been made of the idea that future kids could have robot caregivers. Certainly a lot of wealthy and upper-middle-class urban kids have nannies now, but as I mentioned last time, I think climate change and the shrinking number of jobs for humans will reverse the social pressure to have kids, so much fewer people will try to raise children while struggling to stay employed. I also don’t expect sophisticated robots to ever become an affordable consumer item for most people (sorry Jetsons fans). A truly effective robot nanny/tutor/bodyguard would need to have artificial intelligence of a high level, maybe conscious, maybe not, but with growing concerns about artificial intelligences we may be reluctant to entrust our children to them. Instead, we’ll see more and more tech to help parents look after their own kids. A new app called ChatterBaby uses algorithms formulated from more than 2000 audio samples of babies crying, to not only help parents know when their baby is crying (important for deaf couples) but also the likeliest reason for the cries, based on their sound. Sensing and analysis technology like this might not free parents to leave their kids alone, but could loosen the tether a little bit, and with 1 in 4 US children and just over 1 in 5 Canadian kids being raised by single parents, every bit of assistance is welcome. As to that statistic, technology that connects people is already fostering a trend toward communal parenting: support networks drawn, not from blood relations as in the past, but people with common interests and values. A number of apps already assist with “co-parenting”. The term “single parenting” might soon become irrelevant, and the definition of “family” will be even broader than it is today.
Robot teachers? More likely, immersive virtual reality environments will be used to provide teaching scenarios, using very realistic situations for instruction rather than a classroom lesson/lecture-type method.
So will you ever be able to pry your kid away from their video screens and get them to apply themselves to their homework again? Well, with every form of information available electronically, the days of cramming facts into kids’ heads simply have to come to an end—there’s no point. What will remain important is teaching kids how to connect information, draw impressions, solve problems, and apply what they learn to life and work. That certainly doesn’t have to involve electronic screens or their equivalent. In fact, just as today’s young adults have been opting more and more to spend their discretionary money on experiences instead of things, I predict our educational systems will slowly work in that direction too. They’re just incredibly ponderous institutions to change.
What about parental monitoring of kids 24/7? Some already use apps that track their kids’ phones by GPS, others are scandalized by it. (For apps and devices now available, check out this article and this one.) Sorry, but such things are here to stay and will only get more intrusive. Whether or not the world really has become a more dangerous place for kids, that perception has become much too deeply ingrained into our collective psyche. It’s not going to go away. So as technology increasingly allows Mom and Dad to monitor their child’s location, activity, companions, and indeed every interaction, it will be used and will become virtually universal. Privacy for kids will cease to exist, yes, but then a huge percentage of the current adult population willingly gives up their privacy every day, thanks to social media, corporate reward programs, and numerous other temptations. So resistance (to ever-more invasive technology) is futile!
What kind of people will all of these changes produce? That I can’t predict. I don’t think it’s going far out on a limb to say that fewer children being born to those not fully committed to parenthood should result in fewer maladjusted adults. Revamped educational systems should produce more engaged learners who embrace the lifelong learning process that will be required of them. But as with any major shift in process and technology, there will be bumps along the road. So psychiatrists, social workers, and cops won’t find themselves out of work anytime soon.