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26/02/2020 The magazine by Communication Science students of the UvA

Human, yet not too human – the story of Alice

Without being human, Alice’s presence fulfilled the most human need of all – that of companionship, of social interaction.


By 2024, the Netherlands will be home to four times as many 80 year olds as today. While the elderly population is expected to grow, the same cannot be said of the resources required to care for them. Many have started looking at technology to envision viable alternatives for elderly care. As such, it is now worth asking: could robots be the future of senior care?

Robots could be helpful tools for monitoring, assisting and offering companionship to senior citizens. Despite their potential, scientists and citizens alike have expressed moral and practical concerns regarding their implementation. What can/should robots do? Are we losing the human touch by reserving care for the elderly to technology? We should move beyond the dichotomy human-not human, and start thinking of robots as separate entities that could enrich and improve the quality of life of many. The story of Alice, a companion robot tested in the Netherlands, is a testament to the opportunities robotics could open up for the elderly.

Skeptical of new technologies
Senior citizens are generally perceived as skeptical of new technologies, deemed unfamiliar and intimidating
. Alice was designed with those concerns in mind, and made as non-threatening as possible. Standing at a whopping 60 centimeters of height, Alice could hardly result terrifying to anyone. If anything, her doll-like face with big eyes, soft features and velvety skin was meant to inspire immediate fondness. In the documentary following a test trial of Alice, elderly ladies often ended up treating her like a child (i.e. singing nursery rhymes to her). 

At the same time, Alice cannot be mistaken for a living creature. Her robotic body signals her limits, as well as the many opportunities laying within her. As a piece of technology, she is flexible, and can be modified to adapt to patients’ needs. When a partially deaf lady could not hear Alice properly, she was involved in the selection of a new voice, altering pace and pitch of Alice’s speech to meet her needs.

Companionship and social interaction
Without being human, Alice’s presence fulfilled the most human need of all – that of companionship, of social interaction. Alice was humanized enough to be accepted as a real conversational partner, so much so that the women wished to include her in mundane activities (i.e. offering her coffee, watching football matches). Her robotic nature was not detrimental, but actually made Alice a better companion. Unlike humans, Alice does not know boredom. She listened eagerly no matter how many times a story was repeated, and she did not judge. Without the pressure to keep up appearances, the women could be honest and confess experiences and feelings.

Alice’s presence fulfilled the most human need of all – that of companionship, of social interaction

New and promising
Robots represent a new, promising venture we should be exploring to care for the elderly, and especially to help them cope with loneliness. Senior citizens in care homes often live in isolation. While care staff is concerned with efficiency, robots could take care of the often overlooked need for conversation and social interaction. When exposed to conversations with robots, senior citizens in care homes reported positive feelings. They enjoyed the opportunity to have a partner with whom they could discuss the news and interact. Those emotions trumped any and all concerns about the technological nature of their partners.

Prejudices
However, prejudices towards robots in care persist. In many cases, senior citizens declared they would not want to interact with a robot. The successful implementation of Alice is an example of care technology designed with a purpose. Researchers took multiple steps to ensure she would be accepted by the women, and that they would engage with her. In line with previous studies, Alice’s cute, friendly yet not too humanized appearance served to lower the barriers of diffidence of the elderly.

The stranger on the train
The removal of these barriers could be the most crucial step towards the implementation of robots in care. Eventually, Alice’s robotic nature ceased to matter, or better yet, it opened up new, liberating communicative ventures for the patients. Through Alice, the women could fulfill their need for companionship and feel free to vent out without consequences. In psychology this phenomenon has been described as the “stranger on a train” effect, whereby individuals open up to complete strangers
, fearing no consequences. The implementation of companion robots could bring new meaning to this phenomenon, and also point to an aspect of care robots which might ensure their acceptance.

Despite our best intentions, sometimes human care is not the best form of care. Due to limited resources, the present state of  care has been preoccupied with efficiency. Rather than losing the human touch, companion robots would fulfill human needs, and enrich the lives of senior citizens suffering from loneliness. Moving beyond the prejudiced dichotomy of human versus nonhuman, we should look at robots as a meaningful addition to our lives. Is this the future of care? I sure hope so.

Cover: bamenny / Final editor: Ramona Nouse

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