I, Robot. You, Robot 06.07.15

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On-screen robots are looking and acting more like humans as technology becomes increasingly integrated into our lives – and that shift, says Edwin Heathcote, reveals a change in the nature of our fears about our relationships with machines

For most of their history, screen robots have been fiercely male, from the Terminator to Robocop, from The Matrix to Westworld, Robots have been aggressive killers, or at least depressive, sentimental losers – C3P0, Wall-E or Marvin the Paranoid Android. But over the past couple of years, something has happened: screen robots have turned female.

A barrage of films and series are now portraying wily, women-shaped (or at least women-voiced) androids. First came Her, with its disembodied, Scarlett Johansson-voiced operating system (who had to hire a hooker to give her user an embodied experience). Then there was The Machine, a robot killer in female form. Subtler was Ava in Ex Machina, a female robot that attempts to seduce a naive programmer sent to see whether she would pass a Turing test. Most recently Channel 4’s Humans sees “synths” replace human workers as everything from labourers to live-in au pairs.

These are mostly machines that can dress up as humans and become virtually undetectable. This was not always the way. When robots first appeared on screen they were resolutely mechanical. Think of metal Maria in Metropolis or chunky Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet. Maria led to C3PO, Robbie to the Daleks. Then came the cyborgs: The Six Million Dollar Man. My Bionic Man action doll had rubber skin you could roll back to reveal a circuit board in his arm.

That synthetic skin became a trope. The design of robots got subtler. I couldn’t help thinking of Steve Austin’s rubberised skin when I watched Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina pulling a skin suit off another, earlier pleasure-bot and pulling it on like a pair of stockings. The eroticism is clear, but unsettling. Unusually for contemporary screen robots, Vikander is CGIed into a see-through machine so that only her face is human. Her body at the beginning of the encounter is a fine mesh and transparent midriff enclosing bundles of cables, metallic tendons and LEDs. As the film progresses she becomes more human – first putting on a dress, then stockings, then, ultimately, that whole fake skin. She is creating herself; making herself human.

The same unease can be felt in Humans when the household (male) “primary user” is asked by the rather-too-advanced au pair and housemaid drone Anita to inspect the damage to her skin, incurred in saving his son’s life. He is too awkward to assess the naked girl’s body and only just manages it. The teenage son who was saved is, of course, excited by the sexual possibilities. One of the other female robots gets a job in a brothel. These ideas remind us that the Slavic roots of the word “robot” conflate work and slavery. Surely the first lifelike robots will be put to work as sex toys – otherwise, why make them lifelike? The uncomfortable proximity of sex rears up again in The Machine, which sees the scientist’s newly-murdered assistant resurrected as a Nietzschean Super(wo)man. This “resurrection” presents a direct route back to Dr Frankenstein’s lab and the scene in which the empty vessel of the newly-manufactured female body is filled with fluid is powerfully realised.

The inability to discern robot from human is at the heart of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Harrison Ford’s Blade Runner is a neo-noir robot-hunter in an age when the distinction between men and machines can only be established by a Turing-type test, a highlighting of the paucity and similarity of the robots’ dreams and memories. Blade Runner also broached the thorny subject of cyborg sex. Every new technology, as we know, is immediately subverted for sex. The film features one robot (Pris) described as a “basic pleasure model” and Rachael, the noir femme fatale who hasn’t yet realised she’s a droid. But then, who has? The pleasure in Blade Runner, what made it such an irresistible film, is that we aren’t sure about anyone. Even Deckard, the robot killer, is probably a robot himself whilst psycho-bot Roy Batty turns human as he reaches the end.



Edwin Heathcote


Above: Gemma Chan as Anita in Channel 4's series, Humans

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Surely the first lifelike robots will be put to work as sex toys – otherwise, why make them lifelike?

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Alicia Vikander in Alex Garland's 2015 film Ex Machina

Counterintuitively, the proliferation of female robots does not indicate a kind of near-future sci-fi gender equality but quite the opposite. These female robots are invariably manipulative, wily and untrustworthy. They have learnt to lie, to use their sexual allure. It is a return to the 1940s noir convention of the wise-cracking tough guy outwitted by the femme fatale. What does the fact that these weak men fall for these mechanical females tell us about contemporary life?

First, I think, it reveals an anxiety about the increasingly all-pervasive nature of technology. A news headline the other day announced that a teenager had had a chip implanted in his fingertip so that his phone would automatically recognise him without the need for passwords or biometric data. He had become a cyborg. The same day, the Design Museum’s awarded the title of Design of the Year to a completely sci-fi application from Harvard’s Wyss Institute, which enabled human tissue to be added to a microchip so treatments could be tested with real cells and simulated conditions of life.

Even without these innovations, perhaps we are all cyborgs now. Ride a train or a bus and virtually everyone is looking down at a smart phone or a tablet. We no longer just carry mobile devices, we are inseparable from them, looking at screens rather than streets. Wearables have consolidated us as cyborgs, unable to navigate the city or arrange a meeting without a map or message. These slow realisations that we are part machine have upped the anxiety. How can you tell machine from man? And, as Humans (and Blade Runner before it) asks, if a machine develops a consciousness, does it matter that it’s still machine? What are we, after al, except an embodied intelligence? When we keep a patient alive in a coma, supported by machines – is that less a person than a humanoid machine in which AI has reached a kind of singularity?

It’s this anxiety, I’d suggest, that has led to the change in appearance of our fantasy and our nightmare drones. As we become more attached to our machines, so the machines we portray become more human. Ironically, the real killer robots look less human all the time: the drones that bring assassination from the sky, the VW production-line robot that recently killed a man.

Blade Runner was set in 2019. It’s fair to say we are still a way from creating Roy Batty or Rachael. The robots we can create – and will be able to for some time to come – are more like VW’s killer car-making arm than Anita from Humans. Perhaps we’re closer to Samantha the inquisitive AI in Her, but even AI through a mobile device seems far away – Siri can just about search through Google. We needn’t worry yet about robots taking over the world when, as the joke goes, they can’t get up the stairs. But, as we become more attached and indivisible from our devices, is it possible that it’s not the machines we need to fear but our own loss of humanity?


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