Last week I was strolling through the aisles of the supermarket when I heard a buzzing sound coming from my pocket. I looked up from my cart and saw it was a message from ‘Leto’.
I remember Leto created a big stir last year with the launch of their family organizing algorithm. Its founders aim to counter the falling birth rates our world is now suffering from. Leto designs demographics for future generations to contribute to a healthy globe. It can tell you when, how and what kind of family would suit you and our surroundings best. Leto’s subscribers receive personalised parental requests to take care of the new inhabitants.
Their ‘We All Parent Earth’ campaign was all over town. I passed one of their advertisements when a voice drew me into its parental application procedure. I was not ready to become a parent. But the voice assured me I did not have to start a family right away. It explained to me that Leto’s algorithm may even assign me a different parenting role. As a babysitter, confidant, or teacher.
I did not change my thoughts about parenthood right there and then. But their mission made me curious and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to be kept in the loop. And now here it was, my personalized parental request:
Subject: Welcome Xylon
It has already been over a year that we met. How are you doing? How are things with Hector? I am messaging you with a parental request.
When we met we talked about the ways in which humans support our planet. Your species helped to reduce disease, famine and global heating Yet we’re still battling exploitation, human conflict and biodiversity loss. I told you about my intention to design the demographics of future generations to help solve these problems, right? I am now scouting parents to accommodate these new inhabitants.
From what you have previously shared with me I can tell you are a team player. You highly value solidarity and equality. That’s why I am contacting you with a request to take care of Xylon, an empathetic new inhabitant that will feel loved in your welcoming household. Additionally, your open-minded upbringing will make his creative mind flourish. A poly-parenting family construction could even further boost his collaborative spirit.
Please, contact our AI/human hybrid assistants to learn more about Xylon. They could also help you with any insecurities or other feelings that an algorithm like myself cannot help you with.
Have a nice day and we’re looking forward to hearing from you.
All the best, Leto
Children that used to be delivered by storks thus now get sent via email, I thought. I continued my stroll through the isles feeling puzzled. Initially, I had never wanted children because I hoped to reduce my carbon footprint. Now Leto claimed becoming a parent could actually benefit our globe.
In their message Leto requested me to take care of empathetic offspring. I tried to remember the newspaper headlines of this morning. Was there any item that could explain such a need? This all seemed silly to me. As if designing demographics for future generations would depend on the daily news.
I contacted one of Leto’s AI/human hybrid assistants to get to know Xylon. Were they a newborn? What did they look like? Are they even human? My Leto assistant politely circumvented answering my questions. “We’re sorry Sarah, but we cannot help you with these questions. We need to protect the new inhabitant’s right to privacy. In that respect it is not much different than having children the old-fashioned way. We can tell you all about his character and parental needs though.”
I scanned the shelves for dog food and came across the family packs of interspecies meals. I composed a pack with cultured protein for Hector and vegan meals for myself. Didn’t Hector and I already make up a family? We grew much closer since we joined the interspecies communications program. We became inseparable now that I could distinguish the 32 meanings behind the wiggle of his tail. And I finally was able to explain why he was not allowed to sleep in my bed.
After paying for my groceries I took a detour on my way home, passing the advertisement screens in the city park. Bright visuals filled the screen: Get the DNA of your genetic icon online now! Start building your family and guarantee your children a bright future! The genetic perfection that was sold left a bad taste in my mouth. Why would you want your children to look like someone else?
Again I turned to Leto : “Isn’t there something to genetic parenthood?”, I asked. “Let’s say I would parent Xylon. Am I missing out on recognizing the colour of my offspring’s eyes as my own? Or seeing character traits we have in common?”
The assistant tells me she understands my worry: “Recognizing someone as your own flesh and blood is a powerful experience. But do not forget what 30 years of genetic engineering has taught us. Genetics are not as powerful as we once believed. There’s a reason designer babies never became a thing. It’s the network you’re a part of that shapes you, feeds you your thoughts, feelings and makes up your identity. Your family.”
I sat down on a wooden bench in the green lane and went over Leto’s request again. I wondered what it means to live in a poly-parenting family construction. A quick image search yielded portraits of rainbow families in all colors and sizes. Who would I include in my family? Hector for sure. And the neighbour that takes care of him whenever I am not around. My online long distance date in Japan may make a great parent too. And I’ve always had a passion for the Amazon. Could it teach our kin about the birds and the bees?
I told Leto I was flattered to be described as a team player. But what makes them so sure I am? How could Leto be certain that I would give Xylon an open-minded upbringing? I only shared some of my interests, social and work life. I asked Leto to tell me what the statistics of me becoming a successful parent are.
I continued my interrogation: “What does Leto actually expect of parents? Do I get some sort of training? What does good parenthood actually mean?” To love and take care of someone, forever. I paused. “How do you know you are ready to become a parent?” to which the assistant responded: “You don’t.”
It has been over a week since my supermarket visit. Leto’s request made me think about what it means to be a parent and a family. While I had always thought of myself as being solo, the request made me realize I already am a part of a family. Albeit not a nuclear one, but nevertheless a network of people and things that love and take care of each other. A family that may have room for a new member. But first things first. The most important thing now is to discuss this with Hector. With Hector’s approval I guess we’ll be sending out invitations for our first poly parenting family dinner.
This short story is part of The Harvest: The Family Issue. Sign up here.
Joyce Nabuurs is a bioethicist at the Athena Institute, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She currently researches what concepts shape the public opinion of reproductive technologies.