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Frank Langella and friend in ROBOT & FRANK. Courtesy Sony Pictures.

The film ROBOT & FRANK is set in the near future and presents an age where senior citizens have their health care needs administered by sophisticated robot companions. Frank Langella plays an aging thief in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease who initially resents his mechanical guardian, but then figures out a way to reprogram the robot and use it as an unwitting accomplice for future heists.

That aspect of the film is not very convincing, but ROBOT & FRANK is quite interesting in the way it plausibly presents a time where this sort of robot/human interaction is taken for granted. Last December, IBM announced a robot companion designed to aid seniors who live on their own. With the increasing number of aged people in both Canada and the United States, nursing care beds are growing scarce and wait lists are often oppressively long. Governments are now encouraging people to age in place for as long as possible and while this is good from a psychological standpoint, a person’s declining physical and mental health can make their home potentially dangerous.

IBM’s Multi-Purpose Eldercare Robot Assistant has sensors that would detect changes in the environment that could pose a threat (eg. oven burners left on) and react accordingly. It could note when physical emergencies take place, such as a fall or worrisome vital signs.

Ideally, the units are most effective when they already possess a good deal of data about the person. As this can be difficult to obtain from some seniors, ambient censors would do much of the collection and the robot helper would then download the information.

Such companions are still a few years away from general use, but could prove to be a very important addition to health care. With the quantity of elderly people surpassing the number of children born each year in some countries, robots will have to step into caregiver roles previously assumed by family members and professional care workers.