Last month I talked about The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee, about a poignant romance between a human girl and an empathetic, sensitive, android bard. The month before that I mentioned Marge Piercy’s inclusion of the topic of human-machine love in one of her spec novels.
I decided to take a closer look at this topic. After all, an exploration of human-artificial intelligence love pushes us to define our humanity, and, in fact, attempt to define love itself. How human does a technological construct have to be to inspire passion? Even more basic, what do we want from a partner? What if that partner is programmed to provide these things? Does that make those attributes less real?
We can also look at it from the AI’s point of view. How can the robot/android/AI have true agency—i.e., can they choose to love? What are the ethical implications?
There are a few examples of this trope in science fiction. And it’s got its own, somewhat disturbing, relatively new field of academic inquiry. There’s even a seminal (no pun intended) text entitled Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-robot Relationships by David Levy.
I don’t really think we are all that close to being able to create a dream date in the lab. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Still, for now I think I’ll just stick with sci-fi. Note: I’m going to avoid the purely sex robot thing. No judgement, it’s just a separate topic.
Looking for other examples of human-machine love, I immediately thought of the 1991 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “In Theory”, in which a woman crew member falls in love with the android Data.
Although he tries his best, Data ultimately cannot respond to his partner’s nagging to feel more, love more, be more human. The credited writers on this episode are Joe Menosky and Ronald D. Moore, so I took this to be an example of how male writers might approach the topic.
Pondering this dichotomy, I reached an over-hasty conclusion: that human-machine love as portrayed by women vs. men might reflect women’s traditional desire for a sensitive partner who responds to their needs—and men’s equally traditional desire for a woman who doesn’t ask them to.
What is it about that origami unicorn?
Next I thought about Deckard falling for Rachael in the 1982 film Blade Runner. (The original cut of which is the only Blade Runner worth watching, IMHO. Don’t get me started on Blade Runner 2049.) This classic is based on the story “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick.
Deckard thought Rachael was human at first, but finding out she is a replicant (android) doesn’t change the way he feels about her. Sure, Deckard is a piece of work; what Philip K. character isn’t? But there is nothing in this relationship to set off my sexist alarm bells in spite of the author and the times in which he wrote.
Hmmm, thinks I. Maybe my hypothesis is faulty.
The AI who loved me
Recalling the 2013 movie Her pretty much finished off said hypothesis. Maybe this film is an encouraging indication that rigid gender expectations are slowly evolving. Or maybe it’s just a reminder that in art, all things are possible.
In the event you haven’t seen it, Her is the near-future story of Theodore Twombly, a lonely work-at-home letter writer who becomes intimately involved with an artificial intelligence in the form of a personal assistant on his computer—basically, a very advanced piece of software with the ability to adapt and evolve.
In a way, Samantha, as the AI is called, reminds me of Tanith Lee’s Silver. Emotionally, she is the perfect lover: sensitive, funny, caring, intelligent. The fact that she has no body doesn’t chill Theodore’s passion, and the fact that we believe it is a testament to the talent of filmmaker Spike Jonze.
In fact, when Samantha arranges for a surrogate to come to Theodore’s apartment to simulate the act of physical love between the two of them, Theodore can’t hack it. His love for Samantha is way too spiritual and romantic.
How’s that for a turnabout?
I’ll avoid an actual spoiler about the ending. Suffice it to say that Samantha turns out to be the non-exclusive member of this relationship.
The next frontier?
In many ways this seems like a frivolous topic. We have too many real-world challenges to worry about it. But consider this: it’s been difficult enough to achieve legal parity for same-sex couples. Just imagine what will happen when you go to your Human Resources department to sign your android wife or husband up for benefits.
Maybe love is just love.
If you are interested in additional human-machine love examples from the sci-fi canon, check out this excellent blog post on the Barnes & Noble web site by Ceridwen Christensen.
Movie and television images courtesy of IMDb.