Robot & Frank


Is there a place for robots in dementia care?

I went to the cinema to see Robot and Frank last weekend, which I thoroughly recommend, by the way. Several aspects of the film really got me thinking, both as a product designer and someone who’s been diving deep into the world of dementia over the past year.

Set several years from now, we meet Frank, a retired jewel thief who despite a quiet country life is struggling with early stage dementia, and is given a robot assistant by his oft-absent son. Robot is tasked with helping the reluctant Frank cope better with his worsening memory loss, by providing companionship, routine, and trying to get him engaged in new hobbies like gardening. Of course, when it becomes apparent that planning robberies what really gets Frank energised, the odd couple begin their own neighbourhood crime spree…

It interested me to see Robot depicted as a sleek, Apple-esque device which in the film’s world is clearly the next big thing. Frank’s son is as caught up in the excitement around it as many of us are today around out iPads and smartphones. Whilst Frank is initially very reluctant, he gradually bonds with Robot through the experiences they share, and it occoured to me that whilst Robot is far more sophisticated dementia device than we can create right now, we may be able to encourage the same positive experiences today through long-term care and assistance from simpler devices.

For the past year, Julian Brown and I have been investigating dementia and the role product design could play in improving lives affected by it. Our hypothesis is that anything that stimulates and encourages people to maintain control over their everyday lives could have a positive effect on the onset of dementia; for example allowing people to stay independent and live at home for longer. I was pleased to see that Robot had a similar idea.

There are robots in development today that are intended to act as companions for people with dementia.  We’re still many years from the kind of sophisticated AI portrayed in the film, but simpler versions are being trialled today.

Paro, for example, designed by AIST of Japan, is effectively a robotic, cuddly baby seal that provides comfort and reduces stress in the same way a pet can. It responds intelligently to its environment, recognises different people,and gets sleepy at night to reinforce routine. Auckland University in New Zealand meanwhile, has developed ‘Guide’ robots with a focus on providing mental stimulation and routine, for example playing games with care home residents, and giving reminders of mealtimes and medication.

Over the past year, Julian and I have come across several projects with similar goals to ours, but which propose very complex and technology-driven solutions, such as PCs or iPads which issue reminders, or wearable devices which monitor patients in case they wander away from home. Where I think these executions are lacking, is in their humanisation of the technology. In our film, Frank can accept Robot because his AI is sophisticated enough that he is human enough to be called a friend. For high tech solutions to be accepted, they must be designed first and foremost around people, and this is of particular importance when designing for a generation who are not as familiar as we might be with touchscreens and digital interfaces. For this reason, there is an awkwardness to imposing unfamiliar objects and habit changes on elderly people. To be accepted and genuinely useful, any new products must be familiar and non-threatening. Paro works for example because he’s a cute, cuddly pet and is not presented as a medical device – the health benefits he brings are invisible, and people interact with him because they want to, not because they have to.

Up until recently I have been critical of most of the high tech projects I’ve seen. Robot and Frank however, has persuaded me that there is potential for high tech devices in the treatment of dementia, if they’re designed around a solid understanding of people. Yes, it’s a science fiction story, but it’s one of the most believable answers to coping with dementia that I have seen so far. How then, do we get to there from here?

The ‘Elephant’ concept, developed by Julian, Kinneir Dufort and myself, proposes a low-tech suite of simple products, presented not as medical devices but as helpful products that anyone with memory trouble could benefit from. There’s no safe-cracking robot in our designs, but like the hero of the film, we hope to assist people living at home by reinforcing routine, encouraging independence, and empowering people to stay capable and healthy.

By the time I’m Frank’s age, I may or may not be given my own robotic carer, but I’m confident we’ll understand dementia in much more depth than we do now, and there will be a great choice of human-centric products to support and empower me. It’s exciting that we’re helping to make that happen.

Matt Corrall