If a robot rocks my son to sleep, am I still his parent?

The idea of outsourcing all the functions of parenting to automation sounds appealing but we could lose out in the long run

Sometimes parenting is a survival game and, like our evolutionary predecessors fending away wolves with burning sticks, well take just about any tool at our disposal. For me, bleary-eyed and exhausted, my five-month-old son asleep in my arms at four oclock in the morning, that tool was an exercise ball to bounce him back to sleep (we later graduated to a rocking chair).

Its not perfect. I still need to be awake and somewhat attentive but it does the job, especially as hes a relatively good sleeper anyway.

But recently, while trying to settle him, I stumbled across a better solution online: the Snoo baby crib rocks an upset baby back to sleep and then slows down to keep him or her soothed and snoozing. It picks the ideal white noise for the situation. A combination of sleep deprivation and the angelic glow of my smartphone screen gave the crib a nearly Messianic quality. At last, a tool to give all of us some sleep.

By this stage Id been settling for two hours. Through the delirium my mind started racing: its all well and good to be able to rock a baby back to sleep what if you could put them in fully awake and have the crib do all the work? Could artificial intelligence work out how to feed a bottle? Itd need a refrigeration unit but that shouldnt be too difficult

In my desperate madness, I proceeded to design a machine that would effectively make me redundant in my sons life for the next few months.

The logic of technological entrepreneurship is the logic of progress: once weve found a way to technologise something, we want to know how far we can push it. Cars can double as chauffeurs, phones as personal assistants, cribs as parents, the list goes on.

Theres nothing intrinsically wrong with technological innovation. Engineering is precisely the art of providing tools to allow humans to get on with the business of being human without being impeded by unnecessary inconvenience.

But technology always primes social values in particular ways. Its unlikely that technological disruptions of parenting will be any different. Just as global access to information has changed our appetite to pay for news, technologies that make parenting easier can prompt unexpected behaviour.

For instance, with parents able to get a good nights sleep quickly and easily, there may be less pressure for secondary carers often fathers to take additional time off work to help care for their partner and child. Might this surreptitiously displace working parents from the home earlier than they otherwise might have chosen? A number of new families Ive met have joked about how eager the mother was to send their partner back to work to have them out of the way technology like this might expedite the process.

On the bright side, it might also provide much-needed relief to single parents and those working multiple jobs to make ends meet; providing them the opportunity to rest, explore other opportunities for income or take some time for self-care. Yet those who need to work two jobs are also those with the least discretionary income to spend on robotic cribs for their children. Although good in theory, the crib might not be available to those who need them most until they can be produced cheaply at scale.

There is also a question as to how this and similar technologies could alter our conceptions of parenting itself. When I contemplated fatherhood, part of what I was committing to was bleary-eyed, sleepless nights trying to wrestle a little one back to bed. This wasnt a necessary evil, it was a defining aspect of being a parent an exercise of self-sacrifice, presence and solidarity with my partner. If, as Snoo promises, exhaustion is optional, will manually settling your child move from an essential part of parenting into a fringe activity done by purists? If so, there might be unforeseen consequences.

Once I returned to work after my paternity leave, settling my son back to sleep was on some days the only time I had with him. LEDilluminated cuddles were the only moments I had with my boy; but I was exhausted and, if presented with another option, I might have been tempted a decision I might have regretted knowing what I do now. For me, giving up my sleep was the only tangible way I could connect to my son and my new role as a father.

Perhaps our baby wouldnt have been any worse off soothing in a crib though I suspect thered be fierce debate on that point. But I have a feeling my parenting might have. Until recently, sleep rituals, nappy changes and burping werent menial tasks that distracted from the real business of parenting; they were the defining experiences of it. In many ways, they still are.

Maida Lynn Chen, director of the Pediatric Sleep Center at Seattle childrens hospital, thinks similarly. She told the Washington Post,There are certain triumphs to parenting, such as figuring out your childs cues and being able to soothe your baby in some shape or form. Really developing and growing, as a parent, your skill set to try to figure out [why the baby is crying], I think thats part of the parenting process.

Andy Warhol advised people to allow the things that bore them to become thrilling instead. Im not sure if he had parenting in mind but he may as well have. Technology can make our lives easier but to pursue ease and comfort merely because we can might also make them emptier.

I feel a thrill when my son falls asleep in my arms. In my better moments, I feel a thrill when he grunts to announce hes awake. With the wisdom of perspective, they arent thrills Id trade for smaller bags under my eyes. And Im not sure what kind of a dad Id be if I did.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/dec/14/if-a-robot-rocks-my-son-to-sleep-am-i-still-his-parent