In 2024, there will be twice as many 80-year-olds as there are today. Of these, 75% will need some sort of in-home health care; others might become lonely and could develop dementia. “Alice Cares,” a fascinating documentary from Dutch helmer Sander Burger, examines a pilot program developed by researchers at Amsterdam’s Free U. that is testing the use of an emotionally intelligent “care-bot” named Alice with the elderly population. A remarkable representation of how technology can be combined with human care to support seniors living independently, this fest favorite should wind up on the radar of cable programmers and academics.
Manufactured by the U.S. firm Hanson Robotics, Alice is approximately 2 feet tall, with a soft, doll-like face and a camera behind her blinking eyes. As someone from the research group explains, “People are afraid of big robots.” The software that drives her combines results from lab experiments, field studies, focus groups and computer simulations.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the pic is the opportunity to see Alice at work. Burger follows the development of the relationship between Alice and each of the three widowed seniors — Martha Remkes, Carolien Schellekens-Blanke and Jo Van Wittmarschen — to whose apartments she is brought on a regular basis by the research team. Although all the women initially maintain that they would prefer to have a real person coming in, Alice is able to engage each of them in conversation and relate to them in different ways. She watches TV soccer matches with Remkes (who dresses her in team colors), even exclaiming, “Go Holland go” to wake her when she dozes off; she sings and plays music with Schellekens-Blanke, a vocalist; and she monitors and counts out Van Wittmarschen’s physical therapy exercises.
Burger’s copious use of footage from the (not very good) camera inside Alice shows the women smiling at her as if she were human. And it is not only Alice’s clients who relate to her in this manner. So, too, do Schellekens-Blanke’s 92-year-old gentleman caller and the waitress at the senior center that Remkes visits. That we, the audience, experience so much through Alice’s eyes also humanizes her for us.
We also see the perspective of the women’s human caregivers. Also skeptical at first, they relax somewhat when they see that the care-bot is not about to replace them, marveling at the way Alice can be used as both interactive company and a reminder to take medication and exercise. Schellekens-Blanke’s daughter is amazed that Alice actually got her mother to sing. Meanwhile, the researchers also pore over the results from the Alice-cam, and seize the chance to tweak various elements from the tone of her voice to her responses.
Although stylistically, “Alice Cares” is not remarkable, the content brings science and sentiment together in an exceptionally moving way.