The robots are coming, but at least the kids will be preparedby Hephzibah Anderson / August 22, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Ensconced in my daughter’s menagerie of stuffed animals and dolls is a small wooden robot. His blocky limbs are elasticated, giving him taunting flexibility. He can do the splits and even swivel his head an owlish 360 degrees. He’s made in China, naturally, and I’m fairly certain that his blue and yellow livery is entirely toxic. But that’s not why he keeps me awake at night.
He is a robot, the friendly face of a future that is hurtling towards us with ever greater velocity, and is simultaneously almost impossible to imagine if, like me, you grew up in a world of Speak & Spells, Walkmans and Teletext. He represents the automation that is already devouring sectors from banking to law and hints at that unfathomable menace technologists call the singularity.
He also represents the fear that every parent has about what the future may hold for their child—and what, if anything, they can do to prepare them for it.
Becoming a parent does weird things to time. A night can last forever, a month pass by in the shake of a rattle. You imagine that once the shock of having to tend to a newborn’s urgent, ceaseless needs has passed, the hands of the clock might revert to their former reliable pace. They don’t.
There’s a successful US parenting podcast whose four-word title expresses plenty: The Longest Shortest Time. But it’s your relationship with what’s to come that changes most profoundly.
Are the robots taking over?
Nothing dates faster than the future. Even that blameless robot belongs to a future that’s already part of the past. Today’s robots are mostly faceless, formless.
Any inklings I’ve absorbed from pop culture’s crystal ball about how tomorrow’s world might look now seem as antiquated as, well, the old BBC television programme.
At the same time, the future is vitally important to me in a way that it never quite was before I had a child. This must always have been the case, what’s different is the speed at which the future is evolving.
A while ago, I interviewed a ragtag bunch who called themselves “futurologists.” Whatever their background, they all agreed on one point: it used to be possible to gaze 10, 15 years into the future with some degree of certainty. That’s now shrunk to just five.
It makes the job of equipping your child to thrive in the world that they will inherit confounding. On nights when I don’t have more immediate anxieties to keep sleep at bay, I wonder what careers will be available that the robots won’t have taken over. My own? Robots can “write” passable scientific reports, it’ll only be a matter of time before they’re expanding their repertoire. Doctors, teachers, therapists—robots are already taking their places.
My daughter, I should explain, is all of two-and-a-half, so this is very premature fretfulness, but I’m not alone. Parenting experts now speak of “robot-proofing” children, though beyond an insistence on the importance of Stem subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—nobody really seems to know what that entails.
Creativity, intuition and resilience are all emerging as buzzwords, to which you might add flexibility, though not the doing-the-splits kind. She needs to learn to code, my sister says of her niece—she would, she’s a former artist turned programmer who saw the light before most of us.
Meanwhile, my mum is all for buying a parcel of land and teaching her how to grow her own food, because there’s also climate change and its associated food shortages to consider, never mind apocalyptic plagues. (Dystopian fiction is all over the place at the moment—it’s a genre for the childless.)
She’ll be fine
In some ways, my daughter is already a child of the future. She was conceived by artificial insemination with the help of an app, and when I became pregnant, I used another to track her growth on a fruit-and-veg scale—she’d be the size of a tomato one week, an orange the next.
I’m also a single mother by choice, so I suppose I’m chipping away at the nuclear family, too, but this seems like nothing compared with the rest of the social changes that my daughter’s generation will take for granted. She has friends whose families have a whole rainbow of configurations. And that’s to say nothing of gender, which seems to have been radically rethought while I went about my analogue business.
A few mornings ago, my daughter began questioning me in great detail about how escalators work.
“Don’t you have a book all about things like that? Let’s look together when we get home,” I suggest.
She considers this for a moment and then announces: “Mama doesn’t know.”
My heart swells. Scepticism: it has to be up there with coding as an imperative skill in whatever sci-fi world it is that those robots are plotting.