Can a chatbot on your smartphone improve your parenting skills?
Heather, the woman with short brown hair that I was chatting with on Facebook messenger, was frustrated. Her son Ethan would put up a fight every night when it was time for bed. A scene every parent knows all too well.
Heather was understandably at the end of her rope (“Sounds rough,” I told her, “OMG–thank you, it is rough!” she answered.) But she shared an amazing technique she used to persuade her son to stop playing and to get in his pajamas. The technique involved getting closer to Ethan as he played, laying a hand gently on his back, and staying close until he moved into the bedroom. She seemed relieved that it was working, and even sent a picture of the post-it note she keeps on her fridge to remind her of the three steps.
Did I mention Heather is an interactive chatbot?
The ParentSpark chatbot offers a more personalized approach to parenting advice than most best-selling books. You can select the frequency from which you hear from ParentSpark, receive assignments, and even request that she checks in with you every few days.
Chances are you’ve experienced AI chatbots before if you’ve ever returned an item on Amazon, or dealt with cable companies online, or tried to book a hotel room from their website. You might even be sick of them. But a new trend is starting to emerge; the development of psychological chatbots that provide support, motivation and behavior change. And they have a very lifelike feel.
To co-creator of ParentSpark, Rachel Sklar, the human quality is the whole point.
“Parenting advice is easy to come by, but hard to remember and apply,” Sklar explains, “At ParentSpark we use relatable, interactive stories to leverage the way adults learn.” Essentially, by sharing stories of her own experiences, Heather becomes less like an algorithm and more like a non-judgmental friend. This makes it easier to remember and trust her advice.
When chatting with Heather there are canned responses to choose from (“Yes,” “Sure,” and “Got it,” among many others) and they are surprisingly accommodating. It’s because of this approach that this chatbot is different than most. Many AI chatbots learn from the responses they are given, infinitely collecting external information and stimuli that determine its output. This has, more often than not, resulted in total PR disasters. Heather’s advice is backed by legitimate research, and while she can learn and adapt to the kind of advice you’d like to hear—even remembering multiple contexts—her core competency won’t be compromised by the odd unruly user.
With these developments in chatbot technology, it looks as though interactive AI is the wave of the present and the future.
The emerging trend of chatbots being utilized for more nuanced topics, like mental health, anxiety management, and parenting, has been steadily gaining in popularity. Apps like Woebot and Wysa, both of which come styled as a therapist-cum-best-friend, have modern approaches to dealing with mental health in a busy world. After all, scheduling time to discuss your problems with a therapist, or even venting to a close friend over a drink, costs both time and money.
As Sklar frames it, the world of parenting is equally messy and time-consuming. “Parents don't have time to wade through it all with a critical eye—and even if they did, it's hard to apply what you've learned without support,” she says, “ParentSpark is high-quality, customized content delivered in micro-chunks…And it's there when parents need the support most.”
It’s an innovative approach to what might be considered deeply personal subjects. As more companies give AI chatbots expanded abilities, the more likely they are to venture into a more unchartered territory. “We hope chatbots will grow to support people in more abstract ways—to help them create more meaningful lives and feel more connected to the people around them.” Sklar’s point isn’t missed on most millennials, who are more likely than any other generation to engage online in forums or on social media.
So what’s on the horizon for AI and chatbots?
For LifeSpark and its creators, it’s about more than staying on the cutting edge. “Our mission is to make education and coaching accessible to everyone, despite limited resources in their lives or community.” Sklar’s goal is to create an easy-to-use and easy-to-access source for parents of all socioeconomic backgrounds, and for them to know they are receiving quality information.
The fact that the greatest tool to do so happens to be a chatbot with lots of stories and a heart of gold, is almost secondary. “We help people turn great ideas into action so they can make a bigger impact in the world,” Sklar explains.
Thousands of industries are waking to the new dawn of chatbots and their limitless possibilities. Who’s to say chatbots won’t one day lead whole remote teams? Or provide prescriptions? Or teach students?
So the next time you log on to Slack, or BaseCamp, or Facebook Messenger, remember the person whose advice you’re taking just might be made up of a series of algorithms and numbers. And if they were…would it matter?