We’ve all been there, had that moment in our career when we knew the jig was up. We aren’t as quick or as athletic, as clever or as quick on the draw as we used to be. A new generation has caught up and replacing us one by one. We’re truly past our prime, and it’s time to just face up to it and finally retire. Okay, so maybe almost no one in our reader base actually feels that way, but it’s a common enough archetype to center a movie around. In Robot & Frank, former cat burgler Frank (Langella) is in denial about getting too old for this, so his son decides to give him a robot, because it’s the future and that’s what you do when you don’t want to put your parents in a nursing home.
In Jake Sheier and Christopher D. Ford’s feature debut, Frank is an ex-convict, already retired. His son, Hunter, tired of having to constantly check up on his aging father and busy with a family of his own, decides to give his father a robot, who is programmed to aide in everyday activities and provide a therapeutic regimen to help improve Frank’s memory and general demeanor. Whoever programmed the robot, though, while getting the concept of a therapeutic alliance down pat, seemed to miss some programming steps and the robot, while knowledgeable about state and federal laws, is able to ignore them and help Frank to take up a couple new heists in the interest of improving Frank’s cognitive ability.
The interactions and implications of Robot & Frank are actually an interesting case study in the ethics of the being a home health aide, in a true science-fiction-as-genre fashion. The film explores not only the relational struggles of having need for a live-in health aide and the nature of that aide’s relationship to the client, but also the difficulty of having that aide be something that isn’t even technically a living being. Exploration is an important word here, though. In terms of the over-all message, while providing a voice to various social commentary regarding the advance of technology, Robot & Frank is ultimately a story of characters, a series of events that logically follow from the speculation of what it may be like if artificial intelligence is developed to the point where a robot could potentially provide an assisted living solution.
At first, Frank is distrustful of this caretaker that his son has foisted upon him. It’s just another way the youth that controls his world is walking all over him. The robot grows on Frank, however. While firm in his various prescriptions, the robot seems to truly have Frank’s best interests at, for lack of a better term, heart. Though technically emotionless, the robot displays through its tone and actions Rogerian unconditional positive regard. This means that the robot makes Frank’s needs and feelings a priority, above it’s own, which is easy, because as a robot, it doesn’t have any.
As Frank crosses the uncanny valley and starts to form a bond with the robot, the robot regularly reminds him that it is not actually alive. It is sort of reminiscent of the droids of Star Wars; they show a certain level of sentience, but no apparent disdain for humanity, no sign of rising up against their human oppressors. Frank’s robot is aware that it is a tool, and as such does not need to come to terms with it, even though Frank does. The robot is sensitive to Frank’s need to think of the robot as alive, but gently reminds him, “I know you don’t like to hear this, but I am not a person. I am just an advanced simulation.” To that end, it is true to it’s programming of putting Frank’s interests first, and convinces Frank to erase its memory to protect him from the legal consequences of the heists the robot assisted with.
Frank’s daughter makes up some half-baked remarks about the ethics of using robot labor, but when she used the robot herself to clean, it was clear that she was more concerned about the activist appearance. Other movies have touched on the ethics of robot labor, but this robot has already made clear that it is not truly sentient. This isn’t a pinocchio story, so let’s take a look instead at the quality of ethics that have been programmed into it. Any good code of ethics needs a solid foundation, and the movie makes some easy but relatively subtle references to Asimov’s laws.(picture, “Warning. Do not molest me.” The robot’s advanced AI has allowed it to improvise on the term “harm;” and no other code of ethics seems to be present beyond its prime directive as Frank’s mental health aide. It certainly doesn’t adhere to any ethical code put forth by any mental health societies, mostly because of it’s engagement in illegal activity, but also because of various “multiple roles” clauses that most mental health codes have. The robot acts as companion, accomplice, and butler in addition to its primary function.
And yet, using a screwdriver to pound a nail in is not unethical, even if it is inefficient. The things that are unethical for a human mental health worker aren’t necessarily unethical for a mental health machine. The robot is not accountable for it’s actions. The question is, who is? Obviously, Frank would be held liable for his crimes if the robot had not convinced him to erase its memory. Would the robot’s manufacturer also be held liable for creating a machine that enabled, and arguably encouraged, Frank to carry out the crimes of his youth? Perhaps, in addition to helping Frank avoid the consequences of his crime, the robot insisted on it’s memory wipe to protect its manufacturers from litigation. Another question, then, is could the robot have more safeguards programmed in to keep it from used as a lock pick? Probably, but as far as aiding in Frank’s mental health, the robot did a decent job.
A meaningful message to extract from this story is that the advancement of technology is as inevitable as aging. Director Jake Shreier explains that this advance is “ ..not bad or good but it will change the way we relate to each other.” After the Frank’s adventure with his robot, his family does ultimately put him in a home. His story with the robot doesn’t seem to be a commentary on whether or not his children made the right decision with the robot, or whether he should or shouldn’t be in a home, but merely a look at how we tend to treat the elderly, and how technology inevitably has an impact on that. Regardless of ethics or programming, technology is continuing to produce some interesting stories, and it isn’t making us any less human.