A pandemic, a single mother at the end of her rope, a lonely little girl, and a technological solution that promises to put an end to all their troubles. A virtual companion, an artificial intelligence construct that will always be by her side, one that will keep an eye on her, one that will keep her safe… and safely out of her mother’s hair.
She looked at the screen, hesitated for a moment, and clicked on ‘Agree’, wondering whether or not she was doing the right thing. Oh, the debate had been raging for a while now, ever since word of the new companions had hit the press. The whole thing had been, not to put to fine a point on it, a mess. On the one hand there was the fact that with this latest product tech companies were pushing the boundaries of what artificial intelligence could do. On the other there were the legal hurdles and privacy concerns that almost inevitably accompanied a product that was aimed primarily at small children. And on a third, non-existent hand there was the fact that the world had undeniably changed. That the pandemic had transformed everything.
She could still remember how only a few months prior she had been adamant about keeping her daughter’s screen time to a minimum, and even that minimum had to be carefully supervised as far as she was concerned. That was what being a good mom was supposed to entail. It was a jungle out there, and Kyra was five. The dangers that were lurking in the shadows, dangers she couldn’t possibly expect her daughter to recognize, terrified her. The problem? That she was a single mother, that she had a job she couldn’t afford to lose –and under the current circumstances that meant she was working from home– that she couldn’t afford to supervise her daughter 24/7, nor could she afford to hire someone to look after her little girl for the number of hours she would have required, and even if she’d been able to afford it, the risk of bringing someone into their bubble… well, it just wasn’t worth it.
Those were the facts. Unfortunately also to be counted among the facts was the fact that Kyra was too young to be left to her own devices, and that distance learning for five-year-olds was a joke. It might have worked for the high school crowd, but for the pre-school one? Nope, that was just not going to happen. The kids couldn’t even read, and yet they were expected to sit still, pay attention, and type their answers? That made no sense whatsoever. As for the notion that classes may be going back to the classroom any time soon… well, truth be told, there she was not particularly optimistic. Yes, there were a number of vaccines that had recently become available, but the mere notion of what a pre-school class might look like in the midst of a global pandemic, with the teachers encased in PPE, and the kids being actively taught not to share, and to be afraid of each other… was that really the world that would greet Kyra once she was finally allowed to escape the confines of their bubble?
It was, she knew it, and the worst part was that there was nothing she could do about it.
Their lives had been upended, and the kids were having a hard time trying to cope. The whole birthday party fiasco they had endured a little more than a week prior had made that abundantly clear.
Oh, over the course of the past few months Kyra had grown used to the restrictions, to the confinement, to not being allowed to play with her friends as she had done before. To social distancing, and even to wearing a mask on the rare occasions she was allowed out of their apartment, but she had just turned five, and for a newly minted five-year-old birthday parties mattered, they mattered a lot. That was a lesson Jenna had learned the hard way.
Okay, so looking back maybe she should have seen that one coming from miles away. It was just that, as any soon-to-be-five-year-old, Kyra had been excited at the thought of her upcoming birthday. In fact she had been counting down the days, but what Jenna hadn’t fully realized was that her daughter wasn’t old enough to understand what the restrictions that had come to dominate her life would mean in terms of her ability to celebrate on that particular day. She had asked not just for a party, but also for a themed party, so Jenna had gone out of her way to decorate their place, granting the part of her daughter’s wish that was actually within her reach. Kyra, on the other hand, had seen the decorations, and assumed her friends were on their way. They hadn’t been. The end result hadn’t been pretty.
No, her daughter was not particularly prone to temper tantrums, not more than the average five-year-old, but in spite of that Jenna’s ears were still ringing… and at the end of the day she did understand. She knew just where it was that her daughter was coming from, that was one of the reasons she was agreeing to those terms of service, one of the reasons she had just signed her daughter up for one of the new virtual companions. Okay, so if she were being perfectly honest with herself, she would have to admit she was also doing it for the sake of her own sanity.
Of course, unlike Kyra, Jenna knew exactly what it was that she was signing the two of them up for, because while the virtual companion would be officially Kyra’s, in order for the blasted thing to work she was going to have no choice but to install a camera equipped smart speaker in each and every room of their apartment… including the bathroom. It all felt terribly intrusive to her, but at the same time she knew there was no way around it. The virtual companion had to be able to keep an eye on her daughter 24/7, or at least whenever she was at home, and as much as Jenna hated to admit it, it was a well known fact that the bathroom and the kitchen were the most dangerous rooms in the house, especially for a small child. As for everything else, well, as far as she could tell there the benefits far outweighed the problems the whole thing could cause, and because Kyra was under thirteen years of age one of the clauses stipulated that no information gathered by her virtual companion could ever be used to market directly to her. In fact the companions had to be completely shielded from the marketing department. It was a service that was provided for a monthly fee –a fee that wouldn’t have covered two hours with a baby-sitter before the pandemic– and for that fee her child would be provided with 24/7 supervision (granted, it was a supervision that was somewhat limited in its scope, as it could alert others if Kyra were to find herself in any imminent danger, but couldn’t physically intervene), a tutor that would help her with her schoolwork, and a tailor-made, non-corporeal friend to play with who would hopefully keep her entertained, and safely out of her mother’s hair.
Yes, it was a sweet deal, and Jenna hoped that in time, when things went back to some semblance of normalcy, it would be possible for that companion to be faded from her daughter’s life. Okay, so deep down she suspected that that was never going to happen. She knew technology had a way of creeping into people’s lives, and keeping it contained was easier said than done, but that was a bridge they were going to have to cross once they got there. For the time being she would settle for being able to let her guard down, at least a little. For not having to be a full time mother and teacher while also trying to keep on top of her own job… while trying to keep a roof over their heads, and food on the table.
Setting up the hardware had been… weird. Oh, from a technical perspective it had been a breeze. All she’d had to do had been to place one of the devices in each room and plug it in, link those devices to the corresponding app in her phone, and that was it. The next step, on the other hand, could be somewhat tricky: introducing Kyra to her new companion. It was a critical step, as she had to accept it. The problem was that, being five, her daughter was exactly the wrong age, meaning that she was too old to just accept it as having always been there, as would have been the case with a toddler, and too young to have the concept fully explained to her. She just wouldn’t get it. She was also too young for a wearable (her wrist was too small, not to mention that the things were just not rugged enough to be entrusted to a kid who was too young to understand the need to be careful, because the wearable was both delicate and relatively expensive), hence the different devices.
That was bound to be a bit of a challenge, especially because –with the companions having been basically rushed to the market in a desperate bid to fill in a vacuum that had suddenly become apparent– there wasn’t exactly a ton of research there to guide her. She went over the manual once more, but it was no more useful than it had been the last three times she’d read it. The question was what kind of companion she wanted her daughter to have. Who would she most readily accept? After all the companion was meant to be precisely that: a companion. Did she want her daughter’s ‘friend’ to be a boy or a girl? Her age, or maybe a little bit older? What would his/her name be? So many questions, so many things that could possibly go wrong. The answer to each and every one of those questions was absolutely critical if she wanted Kyra to accept him/her… no, him, she thought as inspiration suddenly hit her.
Yes, Kyra was five, she was too young to understand what a virtual companion was, and yet she had one, she had had one for months because the thing Kyra had was an imaginary friend. His name was Jowen (Jenna suspected the name had begun as a mispronounced form of John, and stuck), and Jowen had a well defined personality, one she was intimately familiar with. In fact she had been setting the table for three for a while now, and it was not uncommon for Kyra to ask for a glass of water for Jowen whenever she was thirsty. In other words, the ‘boy’ was already an integral part of her mental landscape, though he didn’t have a physical presence. As a virtual companion that was not going to change, but now that imaginary friend was going to be granted a voice of his own.
She hesitated for a moment. She knew how important Jowen had become for Kyra over the past few months. How would her giving him a voice change the ‘dynamic’ between them? Over the past few months he had become an important outlet for her daughter, a source of comfort in a world gone mad. She had to talk to Kyra. Yes, the girl kept going on and on about what Jowen had said and done on any given day, so much so that Jenna had a pretty good idea of what his personality was supposed to be, but there were some details that were still missing. Some of those were not particularly relevant (his physical appearance didn’t really matter, as he would be no more corporeal as a virtual companion than he was as an imaginary friend), but did he have an age? She wasn’t sure, she had never bothered to find out… and then there was the fear that, no matter how much information she provided, the tech company would get it wrong. That the virtual Jowen would turn out to be too different from the imaginary Jowen for Kyra to accept him, and that her daughter would end up losing one, and rejecting the other.
In the end she decided to wait a few more days before fully activating the system, hoping to better fill in Jowen’s profile, while allowing the devices to watch her daughter, to get better acquainted with her in the hopes that the artificial intelligence that powered the blasted thing would be smart enough to learn what not to say.
Okay, so maybe there was also the fact that she was still somewhat uncomfortable at the thought of the whole thing, that installing a camera to allow a multinational corporation to spy on her daughter while she was in the bathroom felt wrong at a fundamental level. She remember what life had been like when she was growing up. Yes, computers had been there ever since she could remember, and the same held true for the internet, but back in those days they had been self-contained. She was also old enough to remember when smartphones had first hit the scene. That seemed so long ago, and the phones had become so ubiquitous in a little more than a decade that it was hard to remember what life had been like back in those days, how they had even managed.
She had been in high school at the time, and those phones had basically become the ultimate status symbol overnight. By the time she had graduated from college, on the other hand, they had already become commonplace. The thing was that while she couldn’t remember not having some sort of phone in her pocket (or almost) ‘smart’ was not a word anyone would have ever used to described the devices she had relied on before going off to college. Her daughter, on the other hand… well, she clearly remembered being both amused and bemused –to say nothing of more than a little troubled– when she had caught a fourteen-month-old Kyra using her fingers to try to zoom in on a picture in a book… an actual book… of those that are printed on paper.
That was when the realization of how different the world her daughter was bound to grow up in was from the one she herself had known as a child actually hit her, and the pandemic had likely magnified those differences a thousand fold, hence the limits on screen time, and all hopes that her daughter would have a normal psycho-social development, being effectively tossed out the window… hence the need for a virtual companion, something she would never even have considered just a few months prior.
The world had changed, and she had no choice but to change with it. Besides, whether she liked it or not, that was the world Kyra was going to have to learn to navigate, and trying to pretend that that world wasn’t even there was not going to do her daughter any good. Her own parents had always been ill at ease with computers, but they had also encouraged her to fully embrace that world, knowing that to do otherwise would be to do her a disservice, and now it was time for her to return the favor, and push her daughter forward.
Yes, Kyra was a little younger than Jenna would have liked –she would have preferred it if her daughter had been old enough to at least recognize that her virtual companion wasn’t really real before bringing it (him?) into her life– but the situation was what it was, she couldn’t change it… and she knew that, at the end of the day, Kyra was going to end up getting a virtual companion in one way or another. Even if it hadn’t been obvious at the time, that was where the technology had been headed even before the pandemic, and her daughter was going to have no choice but to cope.
Jenna couldn’t help but to smile when she saw the look of delight on Kyra’s face when, out of nowhere, ‘Jowen’ answered one of her questions for the very first time. Yes, Jowen had been her constant companion for a very long time, her only friend as their confinement stretched for months on end, but up until that point she had had no choice but to carry both sides of the conversation. To have him suddenly answer one of her questions… well, it must have seemed almost magical. Of course, there was still the nagging fear that the new ‘Jowen’ would provide the wrong answer a few too many times as far as Kyra was concerned, that his voice would be off, or any of a million things that could possibly go wrong to keep her daughter from accepting him, but if that initial reaction was anything to go by, there was hope.
Kyra turned to her mother, as if looking for an explanation. Jowen had spoken! He had actually said the words out loud! That was amazing… it was also… well, she didn’t know what it was. She didn’t have the words, not really, but deep down she knew that while Jowen was always by her side, he had never spoken before, not like that. She looked around, trying to see if she could spot him, but he wasn’t there. It was then that her mom pointed at a weird thing that was sitting on the counter. She also tried to explain, but Kyra couldn’t quite follow. All she knew was that Jowen had spoken. How had he done that? She asked him another question, and again he replied. Now that she knew what to look for, she realized that the voice seemed to be coming from that weird thing, and that a light blinked when he spoke.
“Jowen?” she asked, picking it up, and turning it this way and that.
“I’m here,” the thing replied.
“Is it really you?”
“Yes,” came the disembodied voice.
It sure sounded like him… okay, so maybe not quite like him. She looked at the thing with some suspicion. Was it really Jowen? She didn’t know, how could she be sure?
She looked at her mother for confirmation.
Jenna didn’t quite know what to say. It was apparent that her earlier explanation had zoomed right past her daughter, that she truly wasn’t ready to understand the true nature of her virtual companion, not to mention that, truth be told, she too had been taken somewhat aback when ‘Jowen’ had first addressed her, even though she had been expecting it. What she hadn’t been expecting had been Kyra’s puzzlement. She had thought that her daughter would either accept him or reject him, she had never really expected her to question him. The problem was that that left her with two less than desirable choices: she could tell her that it wasn’t really Jowen, without really being able to offer an alternative explanation, or she could tell her that it was, knowing that not only was that a lie, but also one that was bound to become apparent sooner rather than later. Yes, for the time being her daughter was too young to understand the concept of a virtual companion. She may have an ability to interact with technology at an almost instinctive level, but she didn’t really know what technology was. For her that technology had always been there, and because of that she had never really questioned it. She was also too young to have seen it change, to have seen it evolve, but that wouldn’t always be the case. In time she would understand, and when she did…
She closed her eyes, and finally she nodded, hoping that doing so was the right call. She didn’t know, and chances were she never would. It was a fork in the road, and all she knew was that, for the time being, that was what her daughter needed to hear.