Notes: this piece has reference to sexual abuse and assault. The analysis
focuses on a heterosexual dynamic insofar as a machine can be considered gendered.
What would it mean to love a machine and, in return, be loved by a machine? The potentiality of robot lovers is a ubiquitous trope in science-fiction, not a recent one either, that indicates the cultural belief that artificial intelligence will not only exist in the future, but that human beings will desire to carry out relationships with these machine-entities. The acceptance that the natural course for artificial intelligence is for it to be housed in a human-like body is a correlated trope among science fiction media. Why this seems to be natural conclusion of machine entities is sometimes questioned—in I, Robot, the film based on Isaac Asimov’s well-known work, Will Smith’s character asks about the androids, “Why do you give them faces?”
It is as though once the intellectual capabilities of a machine progress far enough for it to be considered an individual, we as humans feel compelled to grant that entity with a body. Further than that though, compelled to give them a body like our own and with capabilities similar to our own, which in many ways seeks to incur our emotional response towards these entities to be empathy. In the same way that Will Smith asks about why the androids have faces, with confusion and perhaps disgust, in Ex Machina Domhnall Gleeson’s character Caleb questions android programmer Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac, why he has given his A.I. the concept of sexuality.
There’s a question at the heart of these inquiries, one that targets what it means to be an individual, an entity, a person. As the capabilities of computers increasingly races forward with ability for calculation and recall that no human will be able to compete with, the need to draw a line between us, those understood to be individuals, and them, those understood to be merely machines, becomes of ethical importance. As long as a computer remains a machine, or rather, as long as it doesn’t qualify as an entity, it can remain a tool. Being a tool rather than an entity carries on the back of its definition the determination of what ethics are applied to its function—how we humans may handle it for our own uses, for example.
The line between entity and machine surely has to be the capacity for emotion—sympathy and empathy, passionate and platonic love, frustration, pride, wants, hopes and fears. A computer can say, “I am sad,” if programmed to do so and even can do so with complex parameters to define the situations in which an expression of such an emotion is logical or expected. In this example though, few people would believe that the computer “feels” the emotion behind the words.
With these two conflicting ideas, that of entity or tool and the experience of emotions, the idea of engaging in a romantic relationship with an android is intriguing and of two natures: on one hand, questionable in sincerity, on the other, a fantasy. There is a gendered divide that arises when examining machine entity romances or sexual relationships. For men, the possibilities of an android partner conflate a power-fantasy while for women the exact opposite is true, it is a security-fantasy.
He & It, the male perspective on the android fantasy, is riddled with disturbing notions of power-fantasy and especially so in regards to sexual power-fantasy. Browsing pop-media for examples of female androids has an uncomfortable likeness to skimming a porn magazine. The women androids are ridiculously beautiful, over-sexed (for what use does a machine entity have for exaggerated sexual organs?) and, perhaps most disturbingly, obedient. Tammy Oler overviews examples of this in her piece “Of Women Borg,” but I’d like to circle around to the first example of female androids I raised in this paper, that of the entities in Ex Machina.
The programmer of these A.I. entities, Nathan, is drenched with an overt, and disturbing, veneer of threatening masculinity that is obvious from the first scene in which we encounter him, sweaty and confident after boxing a punching bag. A foreshadowing, in fact, of his need to be physically strong in order to grapple his misbehaving creations into submission, but that’s to get ahead of ourselves. Nathan has taken it for granted since he began his project chasing after true artificial intelligence that his creation would be sexual. It certainly fits his purposes—he keeps one of the subservient creations as a maid, cook, and sex toy. She remains silent the entire film, another layer to the utter power-fantasy she encapsulates, for Nathan does not want her to even communicate with his male house-guest.
Nathan created an intelligence, for it is intelligent, complete with emotions and desires of its own, only to bind it into sexual slavery. This is where the concept of entity becomes important, for if this android was a mere machine, his use of it for sex wouldn’t be violation. After all, that would be no different than having sex with an artificial vagina with added body to interact with. But that is not what Nathan has done, somehow that wasn’t enough for him. He created an entity and rapes it, indefinitely and without remorse.
The evidence that Kyoko is not a mere machine is apparent in its (her?) behavior—she sits slumped in hallways, head down, a classic image of someone traumatized. When the opportunity arises, she holds a knife to her abuser and helps murder him. This reflects trauma and revenge; these are the actions of an entity that experiences resentment, hatred, suffering.
Male power-fantasy surfaces in androids as an opportunity for a man to have a woman who obeys all commands without complaint—objects of desire for men who don’t have to navigate concepts of consent as they would with a real woman. Their lover will always find them attractive, perfect, intelligent. Their lover will never stray, a programmed loyalty that eliminates the need for jealousy or fear of rejection. An android woman eliminates male insecurity by promising the man that, to his lover, he’ll always be everything to her and she’ll never leave.
As Oler succinctly phrases it, “In the unchecked hands of men, technology will be used to create ‘better’ women—sexier, subservient private property—and real women will be made redundant.” Ex Machina exemplifies this; Nathan has no physical contact with any other humans in his massive, private estate and there are no human women present in the film. If anything, Ex Machina is a warning on this fantasy—no entity, human or artificial intelligence, will accept the dehumanizing abuse of male power.
Conversely, the She & It perspective of female fantasy and android lovers is not a power-fantasy, but a security or safety-fantasy. The stark contrast between what women view as a possibility out of android lovers and what men do is sobering, said mildly, and tragic, if said honestly. Where men would use the programming of an entity to force it into consent, women view that programming as an opportunity to force the respect of consent. In other words, the male fantasy see androids that are ready for sex at any moment and the female fantasy sees androids that won’t force sex at any time.
This safety-fantasy is expressed explicitly multiple times in Marge Piercy’s He, She & It. The repeated reference to this are striking, “He has total inhibition blocks against sexual violence,” one of Yod’s creator tells his future lover, Shira. This is an aspect of the male android’s nature that will eventually raise him above his male peers when it comes to Shira’s desire and her love.
If this wasn’t obvious enough, Piercy brow-beats the fact into us once more with a conversation Yod and Shira have before they engage in sex: “I would never hurt you, I could never hurt you. Believe that.” Shira’s reply? “That would make you different indeed from any man I’ve known.”
Though it could come across as heavy-handed, these conversations between Shira and her android lover instead tap directly into the desire of women to be safe and especially to be safe in the hands of men. It begs women to question, what if? What if there was someone I knew I could be safe with because they are incapable of harming me? What if I never had to fear that my ‘no’ would be ignored? The ease of these desires indicates the generalized fear and victimization of women in a patriarchal society that is fraught with rape culture.
The male android in this book almost ceases to be “male,” an idea that Shira occasionally ruminates on. For women, perhaps the idea of an entity as a lover that isn’t gendered is easier to accept because it means removing the known threats of masculinity they are familiar with. Yod has a male body but what Shira considers a feminine mind.
Shira’s lover Yod comes with other benefits, some that are more superficial like his inability to conceive of age or beauty. Yod is indifferent to Shira’s physical appearance, quieting an insecurity of women that their lover will leave them for someone more attractive or will stop being attractive to them as they grow older. The fantasy extends to Yod being a listener, he’s infinitely attentive and unendingly tender. But unlike the silent entities in Ex Machina, Yod isn’t silenced—the core of his relationship with Shira is reciprocity. They experience a melding of minds while online that reflects their desires for each other, to know and be known.
On these two opposite sides of the spectrum, we see entities that are abused by humans or elevated to a higher status due to their nature. Ex Machina is a disturbing film for women because it reaffirms what many women believe men desire out of them. It is also a disturbing film for men, I hope, because the consequences of male desire in the film is a response of zero mercy from the abused entities. He, She and It has been labeled a misandrist text, not for surprising reasons. All of the human men in the book are insecure, self-inflated with ego, resentful and bitter towards women if not dismissive, and obsessed with their own status. Yod is praised for not being male as a human man is male and is the hero of the story. In machine entities, humans see possibilities for relationships lacking features that humans find lackluster in what is currently available to them. Unfortunately, what this has revealed about what humans find lacking in relationships of this day-and-age is unflattering to our culture. It highlights the deep divide between genders, one which is losing power and authority over the other and is desperate to retain that status, and one that dreams of a future where fear of assault is unnecessary.