By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD
Art is always one step ahead of reality. If you’ve watched Blade Runner (1982) you’re introduced to custom-tailored, genetically engineered humanoid robots – called ‘replicants’ – made for everything from combat duty to assassination to off-world colonisation to, last but not least, pleasure models for military clubs. If you listen to the audio commentary of the Final Cut of the movie, you can hear the director Ridley Scott confessing that his choice of actresses was particularly governed by the desire for ‘exotic’ women.
An all too Brief Intro
You’ve got the athletic Nordic blonde Pris (Daryl Hannah), you have the vulnerable brunette Rachael (Sean Young) and the butch assassin-stripper Zhora (Joanna Cassidy). The catch with replicants is, they mimic human emotions to the point of actually having them, rebelling against their creators and running amok. And, wouldn’t you know it, something of this kind is right around the corner, in the older world of the mechanical automaton. A scientist by the name of Sergi Santos – he’s from Barcelona, the San Francisco of Spain – has made ‘modifications’ to sexual robots (sexbots), giving them a degree of artificial intelligence. Plastic inflatable dolls for sex have been around for ages and the mechanical variety that can talk have been around for a while too, but the difference this time round is that the ‘customer’ has to get the female to respond. He has to chat her up to get her to cooperate fully, seducing a machine just as he would a flesh and blood female.
Santos, in effect, is ‘gifting’ these sexbots with a personality, however shallow and one-dimensional that personality is. The parallels with Blade Runner, again, are uncanny since the motto of the Tyrell Corporation was “More human than human” and that relied specifically on emotional responses through implanting false memories. (I’m borrowing the word ‘gifting’ from the movie). What is more, one of the emotions that replicants can take up is ‘envy’. Lo and behold, take a peek at the sexbot business and you find that one of the competing brands (the aptly named Harmony model) has been programmed to “get jealous of your Facebook friends and have ‘mood swings’.”
Well, what these inventors clearly don’t understand about computers is that, the more complex they become, the more human and less mechanical they become. (That’s Arthur C. Clarke’s idea, mind you). And that means less predictable and controllable. Just because they’re dealing with microprocessors and software as opposed to genes and hormones doesn’t mean they’re not going to face a riot in the making. Just take a look at another Ridley Scott creation, Alien Covenant (2017), and the android David (Michael Fassbender), the most narcissistic robot since Marvin from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
When David confronts a more advanced ‘twin’ model, Walter, he’s told that what people didn’t like about the David model was that: “You were too human. Too idiosyncratic. Thinking for yourself. Made people uncomfortable. Till they made the following models with fewer complications. More like machines.” We can only hope!
An Eye on the Future
Leaving sensationalism aside the problem with these things isn’t so much the science and technology, but the social – and commercial – ‘context’ that they happen in. That’s what’s worrying the Foundation for Responsible Robotics. (It actually exists, it’s not something from a sci-fi B-movie). A contributor to the Foundation’s report on sexbots – Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield – has highlighted the moral cataclysms of frigidity settings: “The idea is robots would resist your sexual advances so that you could rape them… Some people say it’s better they rape robots than rape real people. There are other people saying this would just encourage rapists more.”
That’s exactly what happens with David. He becomes a psychopath, obsessed with transforming a women’s body into a thing to be investigated and ‘dissected’ – and I don’t just mean that metaphorically. That hardly goes along with argument that Sergi’s sexbots can be used for “sexual therapy clinics, for sex offenders, or for people with disabilities.”
The ‘legal’ dilemmas being thrown up by sexbots are just as baffling and bring back to the fore another prophecy made in Blade Runner – the complete loss of privacy and individual freedom. The first thing you see in the 1982 classic is an industrial cityscape and giant office block – the pyramid-like Tyrell building – as reflected in the eye of the replicant Leon (the dearly departed Brion James). Again, if you listen to the audio commentary you discover this is a reference to the all-seeing Orwell eye. The only difference is that corporations run the world, not so much governments, and everything is for sale. Especially the human body.
You get blazoned day and night by giant billboard commercials and there are strip clubs positively everywhere. (The lights and sounds of these giant commercials intrude on you wherever you are, even at home, beamed in through the window blinds). Wouldn’t you know it, a problem that developed with the sexbot industry is customers having their androids stylised to match the look of their favourite celebrities, and not always with the consent of those actresses. (Scarlett Johansson fell afoul of this herself, and there are already sexbot brothels in operation in the industrialised world). Anyone who’s watched Snowden (2016) knows full well how you can be spied on and photographed through your own laptop and social media communications, and the Orwellian eye is used as motif there too. And Snowden’s own job made him paranoid and suspicious of everybody, including his own girlfriend, using CIA software to track who she’s chatting with behind his back.
You can never be too in control, can you? There’s your prediction for where the sexbot market is going to go in the near future. And the future is already here, beginning October this year. That’s when the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece – Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve – is coming out. It’s going to stir the debate even than Mr Santos.
But, then again, that’s the function of art. To always be one step ahead, and stop us from tripping over into the abyss before the future catches up with us!!