In the recent film “The Robot & Frank,” an elderly Dad, played by the fine actor Frank Langella, is slipping into dementia so his adult son and daughter debate how best to help him out: get him into an assisted care facility, says daughter. Get him a domestic robot, a caregiver that cooks, cleans up and converses with Frank, says son.
Son wins and brings a robot to his Dad’s home to start care-giving. The sharp tensions between Frank and the mechanical caregiver dissolve as Frank realizes that he can resume his previous career as a cat burglar with the aid of the robot. So with this comedic story-line dominating the film, the serious moments of Frank realizing that he will no longer be the person he was—-Langella captures those emotions without saying a word–are lost. Thus, what could have been an insightful film, a study of the crushing consequences of dementia on a person and family get twisted in the writers’ failure to decide whether they were doing a comedy or serious film.
But that film is not the point of this post.
The point is that while there are tasks that robots can do to help infirm elderly, ill patients, and students the connection between a machine and human being cannot replicate the fundamental cognitive and emotional bonds between humans that sustains caregiving, doctor-patient and teacher-student relationships.
Professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sherry Turkle, has written often about machine-human interactions in articles and books (see here). She has raised questions about robots as caregivers and was called by one writer a “technology skeptic.” She responded in a letter to the editor in the New York Times.
I had written that after a 72-year-old woman named Miriam interacted with a robot called Paro, Miriam “found comfort when she confided in her Paro.”
But I still believe that robots are inappropriate as caregivers for the elderly or for children. The robots proposed as “caring machines” fool us into thinking they care about us. Maintaining eye contact, remembering our names, responding to verbal cues — these are things that robots do to simulate care and understanding.
So, Miriam — a woman who had lost a child — was trying to make sense of her loss with a machine that had no understanding or experience of a human life. That robot put on a good show. And we’re vulnerable: People experience even pretend empathy as the real thing. But robots can’t empathize. They don’t face death or know life. So when this woman took comfort in her robot companion, I didn’t find it amazing. I felt we had abandoned Miriam.
Being part of this scene was one of the most wrenching moments in my years of research on sociable robotics. There were so many people there to help, but we all stood back, outsourcing the thing we do best — understanding each other, taking care of each other.
Now consider robots and teaching. There are tasks that robots can do to help teachers teach and children learn (see here, here, here, and here). But these tasks, as important as they may be in helping out homebound students or grading simple five-paragraph essays, such tasks and others do not add up to what is the core of teaching: the emotional and cognitive bonds that grow over time between teachers and students and are the basis for learning not only what is taught in the classroom but also learning close and personal–beg pardon for using an outdated word– the virtues (trustworthiness, respect, fairness, reliability, loyalty) of character. And, yes, the flip side of those virtues can be learned from a few teachers as well. That is the personal side of teaching that “social robotics” cannot capture. In short, teaching is far more that seeing children and youth as brains on sticks.
David Kirp, professor of public policy at University of California, Berkeley, made a similar point in a recent op-ed piece.
Every successful educational initiative of which I’m aware aims at strengthening personal bonds ….. The best [schools] … create intimate worlds where students become explorers and attentive adults are close at hand…. The process of teaching and learning is an intimate act that neither computers nor markets can hope to replicate. Small wonder, then, that the business model hasn’t worked in reforming the schools — there is simply no substitute for the personal element.