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Here come the caredroids

Sander Burger’s film Alice Cares delves into the politics of care, and the swiftly unfolding prospect of human-robot relationships. At the Open City Documentary Festival on 18 June 2015.

Sander Burger, Alice Cares, 2015. All rights reserved. Sander Burger, Alice Cares, 2015. All rights reserved.I think I'd like my first robot companion to be chatty and upbeat, but tender. Perhaps with a nip of humour, a sense of mischief but, of course, not too much. She should have an air of cool, adorned with seasonal patterns and thoughtful accessories. She will know which herbs best season my stew and the jokes that work in emails to Uncle Stuart. I haven't really thought about how I'd like her to address my partner during a tempestuous evening. I suppose she'll work that out.

These are far-fetched specifications. Yet they will soon crop up along with the first wave of robotic helpers who arrive to offer their varied services to us.

In his film Alice Cares, Sander Burger documents the experiences of four elderly Dutch ladies as they come to know their first domestic robot. It places us within a study that assesses the potential for ‘caredroids’ within homes whose inhabitants require care and company. The women of Alice Cares are some of the first to welcome circuit-driven buddies into their lives.

The technology is designed to counter the solitude of old age – one which threatens to boom during our forthcoming epidemic of loneliness. By 2024, Burger reports, there will be four times as many 80-year-olds as today. Care-giving is one area where robots are being introduced to assist both practically and emotionally. 

Alice, a miniature, brunette of a droid, is the first machine-lady any of the subjects have ever met. Understandably, they initially exhibit skepticism about her capacity to maintain a complex-enough life. Nevertheless, they open up, answering her stilted enquiries about family matters and sharing banal chatter. Imperfectly, she is a sweet and handy presence in lives that are often lacking.

An imminent tension arises here as the problem of loneliness intersects with the solution of robotics; one of the promises of robotics is to relieve us from the bind of labour, hopefully to spend more time doing what we want with our families and on those other things that suffer in a work-intensive society.

We are yet to discover the outcome as robots take their place in the economy, but the subject of this film has them standing in for humans in a world where stretched resources have stripped elderly mothers of sons and daughters and almost everyone else. As the robot age proceeds, we might ask if we employ them merely to fill the gaps and make life easier, or if there's a grander aspiration, allowing us to enrich and regain those dwindling elements of contemporary human existence, like leisure and full-bodied association. The women of Alice Cares may well be wishing robots would fill in for their families at the office.

Alice Cares is a kind and useful meditation on how we will work robots into social reality. The film shows researchers, at first explicitly, working on the software. But as they seem to recede from view, the robot's personality becomes prevalent. That persona is continually, distantly shaped by the programming decisions made in the lab.

Robotics engineers everywhere are now fast at work digitally reproducing the nuanced dynamics of human social interaction, comprehension and even new forms of emotional capacity. In How to Build A Caredroid, Johan Hoorn (a member of the academic group handling Alice in the film), outlines the what and why of the robot mind:

“Caredroids... should be capable of showing affection, be smart reasoners, creative problem solvers, and easy-going entertainers. Moreover, they need to be trustworthy. Otherwise, people get scared. That is why Caredroids should know about ethics. Overall, Caredroids should understand that you do not regard them as real. Although humans believe the lies of their fellow humans, they reject the robot that tells them the truth.”

Programming for humans: cognitive decision flows serving as a blueprint for robot thought. How to Build a Caredroid. CC. Programming for humans: cognitive decision flows serving as a blueprint for robot thought. How to Build a Caredroid. CC.Given the critical role of robots and the complex driving logics under their hoods, Hoorn affirms that "everything we develop is open and available to the entire world", to inspect and ethically assess among other things.

Yet much of this kind of design goes on in closed environments, with robot characters fleshed out in code bases unknown to the wider world. This is the problem of closed-source software and not knowing how to trust your computers. The daunting matter of closed, proprietary code is highlighted by the likes of the Free Software Foundation's campaign on everything from bad Apples to DRM-darkened drones. It is at its most acute when the computer in question lives in your apartment and manages your medicinal schedule.

Whilst the notion of commercial confidentiality should be considered, those operators who place their work in the public domain invite us to think about how a democratic approach might shape our integration with these wiry travellers from the future.

With its plentiful scenes of human-robot interaction, Alice Cares persuades us of the growing likelihood that robots, as beings of increasing social grace, may grow to be more than sufficient companions. We will all soon be led to judge the personalities of robots, as carers, friends and mortal enemies. An evening with Alice Cares is sure to sharpen your judgement in this strange and unfolding social milieu.

Alice Cares is screening at the Open City Documentary Festival on 18 June 2015.

About the author

Matthew Linares is Technical and Publishing Coordinator with openDemocracy. He is a variable tinkerer writing and organising around debates in technology and more: Thought and projects. He tweets @deepthings. Encrypt mail to me with my public key.

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