Every story about robots is in some way a story about death. Sometimes it’s the human race that gets it. Sometimes it’s a tiny plastic dog. Last summer, Sony discontinued the last remaining traces of customer support for its AIBO series. Remember the AIBO? It’s the line of artificially intelligent robotic pets that, assuming you don’t own one, you can maybe picture cutely waddling on four hinged legs in a promo video from 2003 or so. Tilting their little heads quizzically. So much personality! Sony hadn’t made a new AIBO since 2006, but it provided some basic service for the existing ones. Warranty repairs, that sort of thing. Over the years, the company phased even this commitment out, and now, with the spare-parts supply dwindling, every existing AIBO is on a countdown to the tomb. The future, man — it’s a hard place to be adorable.
What’s amazing about the coming extinction of the AIBO, though, isn’t this product-circle-of-life stuff. Toys break; it’s what toys do. What’s amazing is that AIBO owners are experiencing actual grief. From the outside, owning an AIBO kind of looks like the pet version of vaping. But these are people who have owned, and cared for, their robo-pups for years. Longer than the lifespans of most actual dogs, in some cases. Their AIBOs are part of their lives. The New York Times did a video about this in June, and I’m sorry, it’s moving. They’re lighting candles. They’re saying goodbye. I have no idea what this means. Like, are they having an aesthetic experience? Is it absurd and depressing to feel deep feelings for a consumer product? Are the feelings themselves the product? Does it say something optimistic about human nature? Does it say something terrifying? Life is very large. Under the right circumstances, you, too, could fall in love with a toaster.
I’ve been thinking about the desolation of the AIBO lately because — well, partly because I think about the desolation of the AIBO all the time, because I am a person with a soul, but also because robots are having a moment. Robots have been having a moment pretty much nonstop for the last hundred years or so, but this one is particularly intriguing. Here are a few of the robot-related takeaways served up by the personality-reading algorithm that directs my phone’s news app in the past couple of weeks. An ethicist in England has started the Campaign Against Sex Robots, a new movement to combat the (so far largely theoretical) development of consumer sexbot technology. The Marines are running combat drills with a robotic scout dog partly developed by Google. A sports league that wants to feature giant fighting robots passed its funding goal on Kickstarter. The year’s hottest Christmas present is the BB-8 droid from the new Star Wars movie (commercial tagline: “This is the droid you’re looking for”). The Russians have a new spy robot that looks like a cockroach. And Target has plans to replace many human employees with robots, plans that by some bizarre coincidence came to fruition the day after a group of its biological employees voted to form a union.
In other words: We are standing, as always, on the threshold of the future. Only just now the threshold is looking a little more real than usual.
For a century, the future has been full of robots. The future has been the place where robots were going to have sex with us and slaughter us and fight titanic wars against each other and spy on us and serve us and make us obsolete. The fears and desires that robots arouse are deep and weird and they don’t really change over time. The play that coined the word “robot,” R.U.R., by the Czech writer Karel Capek, premiered in 1921. It includes almost all of this stuff. It depicts the dystopian future in which robots do most of our work. It tiptoes around the alluring and disturbing possibilities of robot genitalia and human-robot sex. It climaxes with the robot uprising that annihilates the human race. That’s how far back this goes — the word “robot” comes into being simultaneously with the fear that robots will destroy us. Someone’s extinction is always part of the story.
Did I say a century, though? The truth is, that’s not nearly long enough. Imagined automatons have been producing the same terrors and yearnings since before science fiction, before capitalism. Before electricity. Think about the golem in Jewish legend. Or look at Greek myth. There’s a sculptor named Pygmalion. He carves a statue of a beautiful woman, then falls in love with it; when he kisses it on the lips, Aphrodite, the goddess of love — sort of the Tinder of marble-besotted Greek guys of her day — makes it come to life. There’s a warrior called Talos. He’s a mechanical giant, made of bronze. He patrols the shores of Crete, and when a pirate ship or a warship comes too near, he hurls giant boulders in its direction.
Statues that kiss you, statues that kill for you, slaves that rise up against you. Extrapolate a little from these stories, and how far off are you, really, from the Replicants in Blade Runner? From the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica? From Skynet? From the lust/enslavement/revolt psychodrama of Ex Machina? What we want from robots and what we think robots will do to us for taking it — we were dreaming these things for a long time before they were a real possibility. It’s the same temptation and the same warning, unspooling over thousands of years.
Should we talk about robot sex? I think it’s time. Actually, first, let’s talk about Commander Riker playing the trombone, not because anyone wants to picture that horror, but because it points us toward a subversive idea that we might as well stash in the background here. The subversive idea is that human love can exist in a meaningful way between a person and a computer program. Maybe that person is the first officer of a starship. Maybe he cuts a figure of rugged paunchiness. Maybe he likes his jazz pre-bebop and trombone-driven. Maybe one day he strolls into the Holodeck to blow a few bars in an archetypal midcentury club, and maybe while he’s there he meets a woman called Minuet. She’s a blonde, but he doesn’t think blondes are jazzy, so he asks the Holodeck for a brunette. Now she’s a brunette. He asks the Holodeck to make her sultrier. Now she’s very sultry. She’s just his type — smooth, sophisticated, trombone-friendly — only she happens to be a holographic projection of a piece of software. Where do the feelings go?
This all happens in “11001001,” the first-season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode that may have quietly been one of the most provocative things to air on mainstream TV in the 1980s. There’s nothing at all provocative about the romance; she’s created specifically to please him, and she’s a slinky dame in a cocktail dress, not exactly a thrown gauntlet vis-à-vis hetero gender norms. Plus, she turns out to be part of a nefarious alien plot to distract Riker while blah blah dilithium etc. But there’s this weird space in the middle of the episode. Riker is going around wondering whether he can have a real relationship with an unreal woman, and he talks to Picard about it, and they’re both amazingly open to the idea. They are at least willing to entertain the idea that the one-sided emotion a person feels for a computer could qualify as love, and not merely as a kind of reformulated violent escapism ending in mass destruction. This is probably still as close as television has ever come to endorsing the idea that a person should be able to marry a body pillow.
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