Science fiction has long shaped and defined science fact. Popular films like Star Trek and Star Wars envisioned technologies of the future and set goals towards which engineers created products. In the 1940’s Issac Asimov formulated the “Three Laws” of robotics in I, Robot, which still inform the field today.

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HAL 9000 from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey

HAL 9000 from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

But the imaginations of these sic-fi writers haven’t only influenced scientists – as vibrant parts of popular culture they’ve also influenced the public. Take HAL 9000 for example, the sentient (and coldly calculating) computer from Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey and later Kubrick’s films. Within the ship, HAL’s essential omnipresence but lack of set physicality gave him an ethereal aura. His pure utilitarianism glistened with a hint of malice and lead many readers/viewers to interpret his actions as ill-intended. HAL became the poster AI for the dangers of super intelligence.

Over the past few years, robots have been introduced into hotels, retail stores, and even nursing homes. They typically do not resemble humans – or, at least, look distinctively robotic – and serve practical functions like tidying up and meal delivery. They take the Star Wars perspective that robots like C-3PO are tools and can’t (or shouldn’t) engage socially like humans.

Meet Alice – a child-sized social care-bot who stars in a new documentary Ik ben Alice, in which she’s introduced as an experiment into the separate homes of three elderly women. Alice was developed by SELEMCA, a research group at VU University Amsterdam, to meet the increasing future demand for aged, lonely, and demented citizens. The experiment enabled researchers to get feedback from elderly participants and alter Alice accordingly.

Rather than give practical aid such as fetching the mail, Alice is designed to provide social aid through programmed questions and conversation. And unlike many of the other care-bots in the industry, Alice is small with a young girl’s face and a plastic robot body. According to Alice’s engineers her small size was meant to be non-intimidating, the anthropomorphic face was meant to be welcoming, and the robotic body is meant to convey clearly that Alice is a robot.


Alice enjoys a soccer game

Though Alice’s wasn’t immediately welcome by the participants – they would occasionally mock or not make eye contact with her – each of them did eventually open up and reveal some personal details about their life, their loneliness, and even their slight but significant excitements. They’d interact with Alice as they would with a human.

The elderly and AI might seem like an unlikely match at first thought. Less versed than younger generations in the nuances of high technology, one might imagine aged individuals would shun Alice, refuse to engage with an artificial intelligence, demand a real human care taker. But surprisingly, most of the elderly woman in the film seem relatively free from this pretense. Yes the women will drop the occasional line about Alice’s unblinking gaze and they’re quick to make a reference to “the robot” when other humans are around. But after some time, while Alice and the ladies sit alone, they begin to have conversations that are just as interactive ours – though they do tend to be oddly paced.


One of the elderly women shows Alice her family photo album

One latent issue in the experiment is the value of authentic social care versus programmed social care – i.e. intuitive, dynamic support versus programmed, systematic support. While a social worker can converse and has the capacity for concern, Alice’s involvement is algorithmic. Her questions and answers are programmed. She only elicits the illusion of emotional engagement. Though Alice might perform the functions of social engagement and concern, it’s impossible to say that Alice actually cares.

On the other hand it’s not hard to believe that many social workers have themselves refined their jobs in to calculated routines of call and response, seemingly engaged but disengaged from the lives of the people whom they care for. Just because humans have the capacity to concern, does not mean they do concern. Like Alice, many just seems to care – which, for the lonely, might be good enough.

Credits: Mevrouw Van Wittmarschen