Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Robo-Relationships, Part One: Robot & Frank

The last few years have been good for thoughtful movies about the relations between robots, AIs, and humans.  Her (2013) was a poignant look at one man's love for his computer operating system and high waisted pants.  Last year's remake of RoboCop not only focused on the robotification of Murphy and the trouble this causes him and his loved ones, but it had references to philosophers like Sellars, Dennett, and Dreyfus.  And of course we have The Avengers: Age of Ultron and the upcoming Terminator movie if you're into more dysfunctional robot-human relationships (Why, oh, why, did SkyNet break our hearts?  Not to mention our heads, livers, etc.).

Two of my recent favorites in the robo-relationships genre have been Robot & Frank (2012) and Ex Machina (2015 - still in theaters!).  In this post, I'll get to Robot & Frank.  I'll discuss Ex Machina in Part Two.

Robot & Frank (2012)

Like Her, this one feels like an indie art house film more than a blockbusting, big budget sci-fi movie.  And that works just fine to make a lovable little movie.  Frank is a retired jewel thief in the near future.  His age is catching up with him, so his son buys him a robot to help around the house.  Frank at first doesn't like Robot (poor Robot never gets a name!), but Robot's lovable charm wins him over (he's not quite as lovable as Chappie, though).

Eventually Frank starts using Robot to plan more heists.  Hijinks ensue!

One of the more philosophical points comes when we realize just how bad Frank's memory loss has gotten (due to Alzheimer's or some other cause).  Robot, too, is facing the loss of his memory, since erasing his memory will ensure that he can't be used as evidence against Frank.  Robot says that the loss of his memory will not harm him, because he's not a person.  But wait, is Robot a person?  Given a theory of personal identity using Lockean memory criteria, you just might say that Robot really is a person.

The real issue comes up when we consider that Frank is losing his memory, too.  So... is Frank the same person he used to be?  Given his frequent lapses in memory, is Frank's personhood being slowly eroded?

I'm not sure what to think, although my Buddhist sensibilities on this issue make me sympathetic to the idea that personhood is a conventionally flexible and ultimately unreal category.  In any case, Robot & Frank is a great film in that it uses the relationship between Frank and Robot to raise issues of personal identity in such a fun and emotionally poignant way.

For a different take on robo-relationships, see Part Two on Ex Machina!


  1. I liked Robot & Frank alot better than I expected to. Doing research in Japan, where you not only have the most robots in the world, but also the most old people (and no doubt the most robots caring for old people), the 'near future' is now. Seems to be a hot topic gaining traction in anthropology. The existential aspects of the movie were sensitive and, as you note, all about personhood. Robot becomes a mirror to Frank- as he passes along his skills of catburglary to the machine, he also builds intimacy and attachments, and this (linked to memories of course) is surely one aspect that makes it more like a person. Dogs that learn tricks or recognize his master's voice are more like persons than, say, a hamster that does neither. I don't think the projection of personhood is enough to make an object a person- but then what about Frank? People who research cognitive impairment usually see the self in evidence of agency, creativity, intention, and so on, rather than in relationships or autobiographical memory (which people forget), but I don't know if this is the same as personhood. Is personhood better thought of as an ethical rather than ontological category? Thanks for making me think about this again.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment! If I ever decide to get into robot ethics, I'll have to plan a research trip to Japan.

      I'm not sure that Robot is a person. The narrative of the film obviously leans toward thinking he's not, but he is getting closer probably even than dogs, much less hamsters. We certainly do tend to project personhood onto impersonal things (like yelling at a computer for not working). I'm probably more inclined than most people to include robots in the person camp, although I'm not sure Robot in this movie is quite there yet.

      That's an interesting point on cognitive impairment. I think we'd all do well to see relationships as part of what it is to be a person in addition to being able to construct an autobiographical narrative. Philosophers have tended to focus on psychological continuity or some sort of metaphysical core (a self, soul, etc.), but I've always been with the Buddhists on the self (or Hume or Parfit in the West), which means that personhood is a far more flexible category than most of us would care to admit.

      What I found both emotional and intellectually stimulating about Robot & Frank was the way it used the issue of Robot's identity to shed light on Frank's personhood and identity. How much of Frank's memory would he have to lose before he's no longer Frank? I tend to think of the philosophical issue of personal identity as a metaphysical issue with strong ethical implications (so it's both ethical and ontological). Cases like Frank's are a place where having some philosophical idea of what personhood is would really have real world applications (also for other hot button issues like euthanasia or abortion).