By Afreen Saulat • MSc Digital Anthropology
This research emerges from a partnership between UCL Digital Anthropology and Wizzili, a French AI company, who are building a product that will act ‘as the personal assistant busy parents never knew they needed’. The partnership supported a Masters student, Afreen Salaut, to undertake her dissertation on the intersection of AI and family life, bringing some of the broader research questions and methods of digital anthropology into dialogue with this industry start-up. Here, Afreen Saulat reports on how the project is going.
Wizzili chose Digital Anthropology as a starting point to help understand how busy parents function and how their product can cater to their needs. As a result, this year as a Master’s student on the Digital Anthropology course, I have had the pleasure of working alongside Wizzili to understand how technology and more specifically in Wizzili’s case, Artificial Intelligence, can potentially play a role in the family home. This research will take the form of the Master’s dissertation and will subsequently add to the anthropological dialogues around families and technologies, whilst also bridging the gap with industry by sharing our methodologies in an actionable form for Wizzili.
Founder Gregoire Tyrou is keen to explore the full potential as well as limitations of AI when used within a family environment. As a creator and provider of technology and AI Tyrou, as a father himself, wants to ensure that ethics are kept at the forefront of the AI conversation. Therefore, Wizzili views research within this area as an essential element to ensure that they develop optimal solutions.
Prior to the start of the main research, I decided to put my anthropological feelers out casually and went to observe some family friends on what I always thought was a very simple school run (please note – this project has been cleared by the UCL Ethical Review Process) It was not simple. Through this activity, I wanted to learn about the tools families currently use to manage their time. This raised questions around busy-ness, time management and the responsibilities that are involved within the decision making of ‘who will pick up the kids?’ I started to learn about the added responsibilities of ensuring that everyone had eaten breakfast and in some cases, that the kid’s lunches were also prepped in time. This is a big checklist of things to manage within a few hours of the early morning and there were many instances where technology played a central role.
The two sets of busy parents I followed on a school run are Stacy’s and Ella’s (both pseudonyms) . Both of are based in East London and have young children. I got in touch with them through mutual connections and as I had never met their families before, so, as an anthropologist, this gave me just enough distance to casually observe in an unbiased manner, an essential and reflective skill that I will build on for the main study.
Stacey is part-time Master’s student and stay at home mum. Her husband Charles, works as a freelance graphic designer for a local company, not far from the children’s – Lotte, 5 and Gabby, 2 – Montessori School. I arrived at 7am in the morning when the family was preparing and eating breakfast in the kitchen. Unusual weather had hit the UK during that week and there was a lot of snow on the ground, which meant that the family got up slightly earlier than usual to make up for the slightly longer time it would take to get ready and to the school due to icy pavements.
Stacy’s main use of technology throughout the day was her phone, be that to keep in touch with her husband Charles or the other mums from school or even to help her wake up on time:
“I like to get up and have some time for myself, have a cup of tea and catch up with myself before the day starts”
Time management was one of the central themes that I picked up on, with both traditional methods such as calendars and more modern ones such as mobile reminders being used simultaneously alongside each-other:
“We both have our calendars on our phones and we may even email each other but the main point of all this stuff is to make sure both of us know what is going on and so that we know where the girls are and that they’re looked after.”
Ella on the other hand, a single mum to George, 3 and full-time midwife, had a different view on calendars:
“My mum loves calendars. If you want her time, you’ve got to get into her calendar. For me personally and I don’t want to cause offence but I think calendars are really old fashioned. My schedule changes too much for a simple calendar”
Instead, to keep up with her ever-changing schedule and the need to provide stability for George, Ella relies on her phone and a large, dispersed family network for help. Ella has to manage her own time and as a secondary measure, manage George’s time with her family:
“I’m lucky to have a large family that lives [nearby], I’ve got my mum and dad and numerous cousins who all have experience baby-sitting, so I’m quite lucky really. George’s dad is also around but he’s not always reliable and has his own plans, so its good to have a large network to rely on.”
Alongside time-management, there were some other themes that I came across, namely gender roles, where I discovered that I had interacted mainly with the female parent. These gender roles then underpin the level of responsibility that is then held by individuals within the family and the network. Who makes the decisions in your home and is this decision making coming from a place of equality? An understanding of how gender roles affect technology usage could allow Wizzili to create a product that distributes responsibility in a non-gendered way. This is an area the main research project will look at in more depth.
Space and decision making/allocation also came up. During my time at the homes of these families, I noticed that they usually congregated into certain areas, mainly the kitchen/dining room, where they discussed the day ahead. It got me wondering where in the home do families undertake their decision making?
Finally, another theme that arose from my short, casual observations was data privacy. For example, Stacey’s husband works in the tech industry and thus, is very careful about her putting up pictures of their children on social media sites. They tend to limit their children’s interaction with technology and cite privacy as a reason, waiting until their children are at an age where they can make informed decisions about providing their data, Stacey and Charles prefer to safe-guard them. So, whilst parents may be accepting of new technologies in the home that help with time- management and decision making, they need to understand the way in which their data is going to be used, in order to make an informed decision.
Through this small and informal piece of research, the links towards bigger issues within the field of AI were opening up, namely when it comes to themes such as; accountability/transparency, public opinion and the need for institutions and managing expectations. Accountability relates to the questions around personal data management and how the data that is then collected by Wizzili is going to stored and used. With the need for public opinion on these matters, this project could contribute to the wider conversation around what it is that the general public believes their data would be most useful for. Or if indeed they even want their data to be used or stored! As for managing expectations, it wraps up the former themes nicely by honing in on the idea that as a technology, AI is still relatively immature and the process of implementing it within daily life is going to be one of trail and error. Therefore, there needs to be active academic and public discussion which takes concerns into account seriously.
Overall, from just a couple of hours of following busy parents about town, I was able to glean more information and insight than I expected. Working alongside Wizzili and the UCL Anthropology department, we aim for the main research study to be even more insightful and provide a good foundational basis through which Wizzili can curate their product further as an optimal offering to parents.