Originally posted in The Washington Post, May 16, 2023
Earlier this year, I made a dumb financial decision. I bought a car that was beyond our budget. We had just been through an eight-week stretch of demanding work schedules, kitchen renovations and checking-account fraud. Our daughter’s day-care center closed three times, for a Covid outbreak, a bout of norovirus and a water leak. Not exactly tragedies, but when our old car died, my fried brain had no bandwidth for comparison shopping. I walked into a dealership and said I’d look at whatever they had on the lot. I left with a car — and a car loan.
How did I become the kind of person who buys a car on impulse? Cognitive overload. It can have real financial costs. In my case, they were steep — and came with 6.9% interest.
But what if I’d had an AI assistant to keep track of the chaos — or offloaded the car research to ChatGPT? Maybe my brain would have been clearer and capable of better decisions. Maybe my bank account would look a little healthier now.
Entrepreneur Avni Patel Thompson thinks families like mine could use some automated support. She’s working on a subscription service called Milo that uses a mix of GPT-4 and human intervention to keep track of family schedules, grocery lists and other mundanities. One parent might text a screenshot of a school email to Milo, which would realize that buried in the fifth paragraph is a reminder that Pajama Day is May 18. Milo could then send each parent reminders to make sure the kids go off to school in their sleepwear.
In the future, I could imagine Milo or another AI-powered productivity app not only managing information but working with other AIs to get stuff done. Today, Milo can keep track of your children’s coming birthday parties. Tomorrow, maybe it will work with Amazon.com to order the gifts, too.
Systems like this could be especially helpful to mothers. A survey conducted this year by Motherly suggests millennial moms are the most burned out, with more than half saying we “frequently” or “always” feel overwhelmed. While stay-at-home moms report higher rates of burnout than working ones, levels for both groups are high — 47% of full-time working moms feel burned out compared with 56% of those who stay home.
To cope with these feelings, millennial and Gen Z moms ask their partners to do more. And working moms are especially willing to use their extra earning power to outsource the hands-on tasks completely.
But until now, it has been difficult to outsource the cognitive labor.
Researchers say that, when asked, most husbands are willing to take on tasks like laundry, cooking and cleaning. But the mental load — noticing what needs doing, coming up with a plan to do it, reminding everyone to follow through — is disproportionately carried by women.
Research by Allison Daminger, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has found through extensive interviews with couples that men and women tend to share responsibility for research and decision-making, while women do more noticing (this will need doing soon) and monitoring (is anyone actually doing this?). And women tend to have more household responsibilities overall. As a result, women do more cognitive labor.
Some of it can be fun, of course. There can be creativity involved in planning meals, satisfaction in organizing the family vacation, and joy in writing holiday cards. But a lot of it is mind-numbing. It’s your turn to do day-care pickup. Did you remember to put the trash out? We’re almost out of coffee.
While AI is busy stealing jobs, could it please take this one?
It may not be that easy. Glitches can happen, familiar to anyone who has used an online calendar to manage the family schedule. Husbands might not see the need for a new tool. As with many technologies, early adopters could be limited to the most educated, affluent households. I can imagine a future in which rich women delegate their cognitive labor to a bot that in turn sends instructions to the working-class women cleaning their houses and delivering their groceries, limiting human-to-human contact. It’s not a happy prospect.
And there’s a broader caveat. Daminger points out that although many labor-saving devices have entered US households over the past 100 years, from vacuums to washing machines to lawnmowers, people still spend a lot of time on household labor- the hours just migrate to other tasks. For example, working women today spend more time with their children than stay-at-home moms did 50 years ago. AI assistants could allow parenting to further intensify.
Nonetheless, the idea of offloading some cognitive labor is appealing — especially because delegating the nagging to an app might reduce marital tension. Using technology to automate some household tasks could reduce the time spent negotiating over who does what — fraught conversations that can feel as tense as UN climate talks.
It might even help women with their careers if it frees up time for paid work and mental space for new ideas. Jane Austen spoke for many when she wrote to her sister, “Composition seems to me impossible with a head full of joints of mutton and doses of rhubarb.” Perhaps that’s why, when I’ve talked about the idea of automating some of the mental load, women’s eyes light up.
There are risks involved in sharing ever-more personal information with tech services, and it’s easy for a helpful tool to become one more task. But the invisible job of remembering, reminding, and researching also exacts a toll. As my shiny new car can attest.More From Bloomberg Opinion:
* What the Music Industry Must Do About AI: H. Drew Blackburn
* Temper Your Optimism on Child Care and Chips Act: Claudia Sahm
* Rising US Maternal Mortality Rate Is Unacceptable: Lisa Jarvis
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion editor. Previously, she was managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted “HBR IdeaCast.”
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