If at some point as you age you need help in everyday living and hope to stay in your home, your in-home helper of the future may be a robot. It will be more affordable than full-time in-home human helpers, and less expensive than living in an elder-care facility.
That’s one of the key premises in Robot & Frank, a 2012 film starring Frank Langella as an aging jewel thief and released convict who’s living alone and has dementia. Frank’s well-meaning but frazzled son, Hunter, is tired of making regular visits to check on his dad, so he buys a robot helper. While Hunter tells Frank that this is a “robot butler,” Robot describes itself as a personalized “health care aide.” (Watch the clip below to see what that entails.)
Robot & Frank is a charming and entertaining comedy, and it does a decent job of addressing the serious issues of dementia care and the sandwich generation. The movie suggests a technological alternative to failing elders being shuffled into assisted living or a nursing home.
Is the filmmaker’s vision of the near future likely to arrive in our lifetimes? This is one scenario that probably will happen, sooner rather than later. If Robot looks familiar, it’s because it was designed to look similar to the Honda ASIMO robot, which was introduced way back in 2000(!). Add in some further advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and this seems like a probable future.
Robot isn’t overly “smart” but seems to operate on its programming and customization for the customer (Frank). Its smart enough, but not unrealistically so. Robot is no match for the Samantha AI personal assistant/companion in the movie Her. (Samantha is not a robot, per se, but rather is a digital being that communicates with lead character Theodore via any number of devices.) Nor is Robot as sophisticated as human-looking robots (actually, we should call them androids) in TV shows Westworld (HBO) or Humans (AMC).
That’s not to say that Robot isn’t plenty capable: from planting a garden, to preparing gourmet meals, to encouraging good behaviors (no more kids cereal for you, Frank), to reminding about and accompanying Frank to appointments, to (comically) giving an enema. These are the kinds of things that a robot helper might be able to do for you in another decade. (I won’t blame you if the future you passes on having a robot give you an enema!)
A poignant plot element in the film is the growing relationship between Frank and Robot. Frank predictably doesn’t want a “kitchen appliance” taking care of him, at first, but as the story proceeds he comes to think of Robot as his friend.
Is that realistic? Will seniors of tomorrow interact with their robotic helpers as if they are people? That may strike you as implausible, but research on robotics and aging suggests that this movie has it right. Researchers experimenting with robotic programs powered by AI – either in the form of animal-like talking dolls, or cartoon talking avatars on tablets or computers – have found that seniors do develop these robotic relationships. Oftentimes, the humans talk with their robotic helpers as though they are other people, and they talk about their robotic “friends” often with their human friends.
Is the future that Robot & Frank offers a good one? The filmmakers are not technology pollyannas; the story makes clear the dangers in replacing human connections with purely digital ones. Like many new technologies, robot aides for the elderly will be a mixed bag. But I can’t help but think that an army of Robots arrayed to assist all of us as we age will improve our lives. As long as we don’t lessen our human connections.