SPOILER ALERT: I reveal plot points of the movie, Robot & Frank, in this post.
Paro robot seal with elderly patient. Photo: Reuters
For my Human-Robot interaction class, I was assigned to go watch the indie movie, Robot & Frank and do a warm-up writing exercise to critique what I saw as it relates to social robotics. In the movie set in the near future, a companion / healthcare robot interacts with a man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Hilarity and tearjerking ensues. A particularly enjoyed the “grumpy old man” moments as played by Frank Langella.
Robots are already used for soothing, theraputic purposes, incidentally. A significant segment of the social robotics field focuses on elder care, work with autistic children, and other healthcare applications.
Design of Robot
I found the physical and behavioral design of Robot provocative. It was approximately three quarters of the size of the humans around it and humanoid, mostly (unlike the library robot which appeared to be designed to be more functional in its environment with some limited social behaviors; it could talk and noticed when its human operators entered a room). Because Robot needed to operate in typical human environments (home, store, walking on street, etc) and also needed to evoke non-threatening social connections with its patients, a diminutive humanoid seemed an appropriate choice.
Robot’s physical design seemed to have a clear influence from robots like Honda’s Asimo with a shiny plastic exterior and dome “face.” This may be a poor choice; indeed, Frank, the patient, suffering from memory loss and confusion was initially scared by Robot’s appearance by his bed, “What are you?!” and even called the robot a “spaceman.” I would have expected the design of a robot companion to be a little more comforting like the Paro Therapeutic Robots used for Alzheimer’s patients. (Question: is this a matter of uncanny valley? If the robot was any more realistic, would it have been equally scary to Frank? Should the robot have a face?)
In the movie, Robot exhibited behaviors and actions that would be far beyond any realistic robot performance today. It moved around too fast over a wide variety of terrain (including an uneven forest floor), could climb up buildings and stairs, it was very light (one character was able to lift it easily from a car trunk), and its manual dexterity seemed exaggerated. It only had a thumb and forefinger with flipper third through fifth fingers, and yet it was able to accomplish a variety of specialized tasks like lock picking and making elaborate egg breakfasts. It seemed able to adjust to new environments without any prior planning or knowledge; for example, it could find its way around Frank’s kitchen when it first arrives at his home and was able to navigate its way through a chaotic cocktail party scene while finding Frank and responding to his commands from across the room. This unrealistic portrayal of robot capabilities was necessary for the storytelling, but it may also create unrealistic expectations of current robots for audiences.
Robot’s voice was soothing, reassuring, but firm. Its movement seemed deliberate and it used subtle, non-verbal cues (like tilts of the head to indicate attention or upturned palms to emphasize points while talking). I was amused by the moments when Robot “looked off into space” as it was calculating or “thinking.”
Frank’s interaction with Robot
Frank’s physical interaction with the robot is limited. He rarely touched the robot except for overt examples like arm wrestling or transferring bags of groceries. The robot’s walking pace matched Frank’s when they were on sojourns together (although in one scene, when Frank was a little more excited, he admonished Robot to “keep” up). Matching pace and body language of a counterpart is a technique for developing rapport and trust. (Question: what work has been done in robots building rapport through mimicry of human counterparts?)
Robot’s purpose was to provide both companionship and care to its patient and would alter its behavior to that end. He routinely refused some of Frank’s commands (like serving breakfast cereal), but was also willing to negotiate with Frank if it had a belief that it could ultimately improve Frank’s health through a sequence of actions (even if those actions were, on their own, of dubious merit). It also seemed able to tell Frank knowingly incorrect information to induce guilty feelings from Frank. This would indicate a very sophisticated model of other minds in Robot’s AI; it was able to reason about Frank’s intentions and motivations.
Frank seemed to bond with his robot. The entire metaphor of the movie (Frank the alzheimer’s patient with memory issues vs. Robot the machine with a volatile memory, itself) played out in the poignant, final scene between Frank and the Robot. In order to erase the robot’s memory, Frank needed to reach behind the robot’s head and depress the off switch. This resulted in an embracing interaction (another example of touching) between Frank and the Robot, “I knew you had an off switch”
Moments like these, implied intentions of Robot, and Robot’s communicative interaction with Frank helped the movie audience empathize with a non-human character.
Robot’s Social Place
The movie attempted to address an overarching question of what it means to be human and how a robot companion might fit into the social structure of a family. I’m not convinced the characters worked this out completely. For example, the human characters never gave Robot a name; instead, they used terms like, “slave,” “butler,” “babysitter,” “companion,” “thing,” “appliance,” and “friend” to describe the robot’s relationship to the family depending on the current circumstances. It seemed that the characters had difficulty and confusion assessing the robot’s place in their social structure. The daughter felt there were ethical concerns with the robot’s place in the household whereas Frank alternatively seemed to find the robot a “friend,” “co-conspirator,” and even a “tool” to accomplish some underhanded goals (i.e. burglary).
Robot did exhibit selfless behaviors in its final act to his companion — knowingly willing to erase its memory in an attempt to protect Frank. The robot “knew” that it was not alive and did its best to assure Frank that it could not die.