How is robot care for older adults envisioned in fiction? In the 2012 movie ‘Robot and Frank’ directed by Jake Schreier, the son of an older adult – Frank – with moderate dementia gives his father the choice between being placed in a care facility or accepting being taken care of by a home-care robot

Living with a home-care robot 

Robots in fiction can play a pivotal role in influencing the design of actual robots. It is therefore useful to analyze dramatic productions in which robots fulfill roles for which they are currently being designed. High-drama action packed robot films make for big hits at the box office. Slower paced films, in which robots integrate into the spheres of daily domestic life, are perhaps better positioned to reveal something about where we are as a society, and possible future scenarios. ‘Robot and Frank’ is one such film, focusing on care work outsourced to  machines. 

‘Robot and Frank’ focuses on the meeting of different generations’ widely varying acceptance of robot technology. The main character, Frank, is an older adult diagnosed with moderate dementia. He appreciates a  simple life, having retired from a career as a cat burglar. Frank lives alone in a small village, and most of his daily interaction is with the local librarian. Due to his worsening dementia, Frank’s son Hunter gives him a home-care robot. Frank says, in his own words, “[I] don’t want a robot, and don’t need a robot”. However, after a while, the robot becomes an increasingly important part of his life – not solely because of his medical and daily needs, but because of how he reinvents himself through robotic aid. The robot’s advanced nature makes communication between them possible by almost fully resembling human interaction. The robot is portrayed in a comedic manner, as when Frank is about to drink an unhealthy beverage:


Robot: You should not drink those, Frank. It is not good for gout.
Frank: I don’t have gout.
Robot: You do not have gout. Yet.


Hunter programmed the robot to aid Frank through healthy eating and mental and physical exercises. Although Frank  is still convinced that this is a waste of money and time, he gradually develops a bond and level of trust that changes his perception of his robot and his relationship with it. By walking to and from the local library, cooking meals and eating meals, meeting new people and sharing past experiences, Frank connects with his controversial past as a cat burglar. Frank’s unnamed care robot and the librarian’s robot colleague ‘Mr. Darcy’ are the only two robots featured in this movie. On several occasions the robots meet at the same time as their owners do. The robots do not seem to take much notice of each other’s presence, but the human actors demand that the machines greet each other and make conversation. When asked to do so, Mr. Darcy replies: “I have no functions or tasks that require verbal interaction with VGC 60 L” (the care robot’s model number). Frank and the librarian seem surprised that the robots do not wish to interact with each other and jokingly ask how the robots are going to form a society when humans are extinct if they do not wish to speak together. (This is an intriguing question that has several fascinating portrayals, e.g. in shows like Battlestar Galactica where robots develop spirituality.) Even though Frank and the librarian have accepted their robot helpers as useful companions, this shows that the human actors might still see the robots as somewhat alien and incapable of acting outside of their programming. 

Questions raised by automated care

In a wider scientific and technological context, the movie triggers relevant discussions and questions on the ‘humanity of robots’ pertaining to human-robot relations, robot-robot relations as well as human-human relations. This influences robot design studies and debates about  what robots could, should or should not do. This is especially salient because the context of the film – care by robots – is often a contested space. However, there is a mismatch between what robots in fiction are portrayed capable of and what actual robots can do. Despite the fact that robots fundamentally lack human factors such as emotion, ‘Robot and Frank’ provides an opportunity to consider what constitutes a good relationship. Their relationship is depicted as far more giving and mutual than Frank’s relationship with his children. This is but one of the many arrays of possibilities that technologies such as care robots can produce in dialogue with humans. By exploring this interaction, new perspectives and understandings of what is normal may come to light. This is an especially important investigation in the healthcare context because of significant changes in healthcare technology that will have significant consequences for both patients and workers, both at home and in healthcare facilities.

 Imagining and planning the implementation of care robots or other technologies not only creates opportunities for those involved; it also leads to controversies and deep challenges for those who  are engaged in technological transformations. Therefore, it is pivotal that all new implementations are developed in close dialogue with those most likely to experience its fullest effect. ‘Robot and Frank’ breaks down stereotypes of human-robot relations by showing that, given time, productive and close relationships may arise. Perhaps robots can most easily and successfully be introduced into people’s lives by providing time and opportunities for significant exposure to each other. 

Caregiver exhaustion versus robotic resilience 

Being an informal caregiver is a difficult task, especially taking care of a parent who had previously been one’s main support. Conflicts often arise as a result of the role change between parent and offspring that comes with old age. It is not only the human-robot relationship in the movie that sparks thoughts for discussion. Frank’s two children, Hunter and Madison, have distinct ways of dealing with their father’s growing dementia and solitude. Because of his illness, he is in need of domestic support. Hunter, the main informal caregiver, is exhausted by the tasks of caring. Living several hours away and busy with his own work and family life, Hunter’s situation is likely familiar to many adults who care for aging parents.  Hunter wants to outsource some of his care work to a robot.

There is little love coming from Hunter, and it is unclear how much of this stems from a strained childhood relationship and how much from the over-burden Hunter feels from his caretaker role.For Frank’s daughter, Madison, the story is quite different. Being an anti-robot activist, she spends her days traveling the globe and has little time to see her dad. Filled with both a contempt for robots and bad conscience about not seeing her dad regularly, she decides to move in and care for him – turning off the robot in the process. This leads the house to fall into chaos, as his daughter does not cook healthy or tasty food, cannot clean and becomes too tired to do fun excursions. Frank further aggravates this situation by making messes on purpose and complaining to his daughter that her caregiving is unsatisfactory. Frustrated at his daughter’s arrival, the bond between him and the robot becomes increasingly visible. Madison picks up on this special bond through Frank’s reluctant acknowledgement that the robot is his friend. She turns the robot back on and agrees to letting it help around the house. She soon becomes accustomed to the robotic services. Madison comes to like – or at least tolerate – the robot, especially when it serves her drinks. 

Frank’s relationship with his adult children is challenging, not just because of his criminal past serving long prison sentences, but also because of the time and effort that they feel obliged to spend on him. Throughout the movie, meaningful friendships and high quality interactions between people who share interests seem to be more important than  vague family engagements and obligations. Although Frank expresses love for his children, there are tense and difficult moments for all as his dementia worsens. When Frank’s condition peaks he struggles to recognize his children, let alone remember what is going on in their day-to-day lives. He pretends to remember what they are talking about, but his confusion is painfully clear. As the children have their own lives, they seem more focused on his medical well-being and less interested in Frank as a person. For the robot, who is solely devoted to Frank, the situation is different. Time is needed to create trust and friendship. The latter aspect surely seems important to Frank as he, anew, finds energy and motivation to go about his controversial interest of planning robberies and stealing supported reluctantly, but compassionately, by his robotic companion.


Can a care robot help retired thieves with diamond theft?

Towards the end of the story, Frank remains a main suspect of a large-scale jewelry theft. Because he wipes the memory from his care robot, the robot cannot be used as conclusive evidence to determine whether Frank is guilty. The ethical side of diamond theft is of less importance here than the ethical side of care through technology. It is not what Frank steals that is of interest, but that he trains his care robot to steal. This raises some ethical dilemmas—should Frank no longer be allowed to have a care robot because he may have used it to commit a crime—and is Frank even indictable as a criminal to begin with, given his mental state? Should some of the blame lie with the programmers who neglected to incorporate legal constraints in the care robot’s programming?

At the final scene of the movie, Frank has moved into a care home with other residents having identical care robots. As Frank’s robot confirmed several times throughout the movie, Frank’s dementia-condition improved greatly during the time they spent together—as someone was there for him 100% of the time, making sure he had a healthy body and mind—and even allowing some escapades of theft as long as it kept Frank engaged. Care is at the core of human value, dignity and autonomy—and in this movie, we learn how a robot can help care for someone – in a deeply human way.


The authors are on Twitter @rogerSora , @SutcliffeEdward & @NienkeBruyning