Not your everyday robot
Starring Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Daniel Henney, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans, Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk, Maya Rudolph
Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams
Written by Jordan Roberts, Daniel Gerson, Robert L. Baird
Produced by Roy Conli, John Lasseter, Kristina Reed, Bradford Simonsen
Walt Disney Animation Studios
Disney’s blockbuster Big Hero 6 features a truly heroic robot “nurse”
Disney’s blockbuster Big Hero 6 features a truly heroic robot “nurse.” Based on a Marvel comic book series and set in the future metropolis of “San Fransokyo,” the film focuses on orphaned teen Hiro (yes, pronounced “hero”). Hiro is a brilliant kid who has great potential but seems to be squandering it, until his older brother Tadashi persuades him to seek admission to the local university, where Tadashi and his fellow geeks design ultracool technology to create a better tomorrow. To impress the school, Hiro creates microbots that reconfigure themselves into any shape instantly based on orders from his neuro-transmitter. Unfortunately, right after a triumphant launch event, a terrible fire kills Tadashi and destroys the microbots. Hiro is bereft, but he is not alone. Tadashi has left behind his creation Baymax, an inflatable, cuddly, male-gendered android. Baymax is a “nurse,” although he mostly calls himself a “personal health care companion.” When it appears that the microbots were not destroyed after all, Baymax joins Hiro and Tadashi’s university friends to unravel the mystery. They are an awkward but eager bunch, sort of the Guardians of Silicon Valley, and they are soon engaged in marvelous battles, comic moments, and touching personal discoveries. In the real world, calling robots “nurses” has been a problem because it equates college-educated health professionals with machines that do a few simple tasks, like lifting patients or handing objects to a surgeon. By contrast, Baymax is cognitively advanced, with diverse skills, a vast knowledge of health care, and a persistent holistic focus. He not only provides effective care to Hiro but also uses his problem-solving ability to save the geek team again and again. Granted, Baymax is so benevolent, self-sacrificing, and huggable that he could promote the angel stereotype. In fact, though, his skills, knowledge, and combat exploits–once Hiro upgrades his martial arts capacities–counter any hint of passive virtue. This is a clever, attractive film, although it is yet another male-focused one, and in the Pixar / Marvel era, most of its plot and characters seem familiar. But the idea of a “nurse” robot as action hero does not.
Baymax is a very different kind of robot “nurse.” (Only Hiro actually calls him a “nurse,” once, but Tadashi does not dispute that label.) Far from the basic “robonurses” that occasionally surface in reports about new health care machines, Baymax is “smart” in the sense that he can respond verbally in a very sophisticated way to human needs and requests. He also displays advanced analytical skills and quickly comes up with clever solutions to problems. At least one review has compared him to Mr. Spock.
Baymax is constantly on the lookout for health problems. When he finds one, he likes to use a pain scale, which is helpfully illustrated for patients on his body (right). That is a classic nursing assessment. Baymax also has remote, non-invasive scanning technology that enables him to quickly diagnose ailments, prescribe appropriate treatments, and take steps to implement those treatments. In that sense he seems like an advanced practice nurse, although one who does not seem bound by any sense of personal privacy. Baymax remotely scans anyone he pleases, discovering all sorts of things about them, but the film just skips past what could be a somewhat unsettling vision of unchecked invasions of personal health information by “health care companions.”
This is also a robot that looks at things holistically. Baymax is not concerned only with immediate physical ailments, he is alert to words and underlying physical changes indicating psychosocial distress. He quickly proposes measures to address those problems, as when Hiro is depressed after Tadashi’s death. These measures include not only giving Hiro hugs, but contacting loved ones who can offer Hiro support; as with the scanning, Baymax does not always ask for his patient’s consent. In any case, he is acting in accord with a broad care model.
Baymax is endowed with Tadashi’s basic goodness. At one point after Hiro supplements Baymax’s programming with martial upgrades, Hiro is overcome by a desire for revenge. But Baymax resists the use of his skills to go beyond defending others and capturing wrongdoers. At another point, Baymax expresses concern that some upgrades are altering his non-threatening roly-poly shape, suggesting that Tadashi intentionally made him big and cuddly to enhance his health care mission. And he is certainly less Terminator than Animator. In fact, in his care-taking, willingness to sacrifice, reluctance to abuse his power, and capacity for self-repair, Baymax has more than a little in common with the title character in The Iron Giant.
Some of Baymax’s features and statements are funny, but the film is not looking down on him. He begins the movie with limited understanding of the real world he must confront; Tadashi did not envision that his creation would need to deal with some of the situations he encounters. In early scenes, Baymax puzzles over how to move through physical environments that were not designed to accommodate his shape. At one point when he and Hiro must flee quickly, Baymax notes evenly, “I am not fast,” and this understatement both amuses and endears him to viewers.
Some may hesitate at the idea that any robot could perform the tasks of a nurse. We are a long way from any robot being able to perform the judgment-based or sensitive physical tasks required of modern health professionals, nurses or physicians. And perhaps in subtle recognition of this, the film does contain several exchanges in which Baymax responds literally to figurative statements, for example the use of “sick” to mean cool, or more dangerously, the phrase “you gave me a heart attack”–Baymax is a little too quick in whipping out his built-in defibrillators there, although at least the film suggests that nurses do that key care task.
In the various future worlds imagined in recent decades, a robot might be presented as performing virtually any profession (whether for good or ill). In fact, in such fiction, the world has actually been taken over by artificial intelligences. Computer technology is already fairly advanced. Could a chess player be offended by a fictional computer chess master when real computers have beaten human grandmasters? In light of that background, this particular vision of a future robotic “nurse” does not seem as troubling as others. It might have been better to have Tadashi explain that he had consulted real nurses in designing Baymax, rather than just quickly boasting to Hiro that he had programmed Baymax with thousands of health procedures. On the other hand, at least Tadashi didn’t say that he had based the programming on physician input. But Baymax liked to use this pain scale, for instance. It is a classic nursing assessment.
Another potential concern is that, considering Baymax’s cuddly demeanor and other virtues, he may reinforce the angel image, in which nurses are seen as noble but low-skilled, defined mainly by their desire to comfort and do good. That is not a far-fetched concern, and the film does get some comic mileage out of the disparity between Baymax’s fairly single-minded focus on health and the complexities of human emotion (not to mention evil) that he does not always understand.
But on the whole, Baymax’s demeanor is probably best seen as more of an engineer’s idea of what kind of psychosocial care provider would be most effective. He is far from a simple-minded comforter. And he learns: When he again hears the word “sick” used to mean cool, he makes a point of clarifying that he gets it. The character’s male gender also helps to counter the angel image. Regardless of the gender of angels in Biblical terms, today the label is more likely to be applied to virtuous females. In addition, although Baymax is sometimes tentative in confronting the real world, he is not submissive or cowering. For much of the film he is a courageous action hero, to the extent a robot can be said to have a quality like courage. Of course, real nurses don’t need to fly around and hurl things to display courage; consider those who care for Ebola patients. But this is a Disney film aimed at the Pixar and Marvel demographics.
It’s not clear why the film creators chose to make Baymax a nurse. His skills encompass diagnostic and treatment tasks traditionally performed by physicians, and his encyclopedic knowledge of health care is something that most people are more likely to attribute to physicians. It may be giving the creators too much credit to suggest that they wanted the holistic nursing care model to comfort the ailing Hiro in the wake of his brother’s death. It seems likely, though, that they did associate nursing more with the comfort and support they wanted Hiro to receive. And Baymax’s slightly unsettling Big Brotherish features probably won’t even register with much of the audience because he is such a benevolent “nurse” figure (actually, he iskind of Hiro’s surrogate big brother, carrying on his creator Tadashi’s role to some extent). Maybe, despite the countless Hollywood shows on which physicians provide all psychosocial care, the filmmakers still had some sense that a nurse would be a better choice here. Or maybe they just did not want to offend physicians, and figured there were already references to robot “nurses” in real-world robotics projects, so nurses were less likely to have an issue with a robot nurse character. That is not the case, but Baymax has so much knowledge and skill that it’s hard to fault the portrayal.
Frankly, based on early reports about Big Hero 6, it did not seem likely that the Baymax character would be helpful to nursing. But as it turns out, nurses may be quite satisfied with his care.
Reviewed by Harry Jacobs Summers
Nursing Editor: Sandy Summers, MSN, MPH, RN
Reviewed November 21, 2014
The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board Members or Advisory Panel of The Truth About Nursing.