Helper robot or partner in crime? – The Robot & Frank

Robot and Frank

The robot and Frank, preparing a job together.

When we think about the future, oftentimes we see new technology, like robotics, that will solve most of our problems. What we don’t always think about, is whether people like this new technology in their lives and how they engage with things like robots.
The movie the Robot & Frank is set in the near future. Frank is an older man with memory loss living on his own. His children live too far away to keep an eye on him, so his son brings him a robot for caring and keeping him healthy. At first, Frank does not like the ´piece of metal´ in his house. A bit later, he appreciates him as a butler. But once he realises that he can use the robot to take up his old habit (burglary), then the bond gets tighter. This very entertaining movie shows us neatly the important values of a relationship between man and machine.
Frank’s robot is designed to keep the elderly healthy and be able to live independently. Frank is a dementia patient. The robot cooks him wholesome meals, cleans his house and takes him for a walk. It also encourages Frank to begin a hobby like gardening, which is healthy in many ways. Frank first protests and then he starts to like the robot’s cooking. Little by little the robot is getting a companion. But only when Frank recognizes the higher use of the robot, then he gets really enthusiastic.
Frank is a retired burglar, but barely able to suppress his passion. When the old library (with the nice librarian lady) that he visits daily, is getting modernized and digitalized by a hipster guy, Frank plans to steel an old and valuable issue of Don Quijote. The robot can crack locks and codes. The burglary of the library goes well. Next step is to steel from the house of the hipster freaks with their expensive jewelry. Frank´s experience of a burglar matched with the machine knowledge of the robot makes them the perfect team for the job. Most conveniently, the robot is programmed for keeping the elderly healthy and active. It does not have any ethical programming concerning things like burglary. In order to cover his tracks for the police, the robot encourages Frank to erase his memory. But with his own failing memory, that seems one bridge too far.
The Robot & Frank nicely illustrates some issues in our relationship with robots, which is important to understand for future generations of nursing and health care robots. In recent years especially in Japan various specialized health care robots have been developed: hear washing robots, drug delivery robots, and other helper robots. One of the greatest successes in this field is Paro, the therapeutic robot seal that emphatically responds to touching and is designed for dementia patients. However, even in Japan, the most robot loving nation on earth, robot acceptance as caretakers is still on a slow track. Elderly people have to get used to robots little by little.
In this film Frank gets excited when he realizes that the robot can help him to take up activities that he cannot do without the robot. It is the reciprocity of their relationship that gets Frank into action and makes him flare up again. If robots are designed to be more than observing lifeless caretakers, then they need to do things keep elderly active and independent. They should cleverly trigger people like Frank to be motivated to take up some habit. That would be an interesting challenge for robot design.

Related post: Robot as our co-workers

About Freija Van Duijne

Twitter: @FreijavanDuijne Futuring is my passion. I am fascinated about what the future might bring. Always looking around for leads about the future and open for new insights. I am futurist, trendwatchter and strategist at the The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, a thinktank in the Netherlands. My background is in Human factors psychology. I did my Masters at Leiden University and I did a PhD in Delft University at the faculty of Industrial design engineering. I have been involved in foresight studies since 2006. I am frequently asked as an expert for future studies in area of food, natural resources, health and governance. I am also a speaker and workshop facilitator on futures studies, trend presentations and the many topics that I blog about. My contributions to Futuristablog represent my own personal opinion and is never a statement of the Ministry of Economic Affairs.
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