Wednesday, August 16, 2023

What does Robots have to say about our AI anxieties?

Even the most forgettable story can make a case worth discussing

Robots is a terrible choice of name for a movie about robots. It guarantees instant forgettability. You may be excused for not even having heard that this movie was released back in May, to almost no one's notice. It won't win any awards for comedy, or speculative content, or even the basics of doing a continuity shot, but the questions it raises aren't negligible. There's been a shift in how we tell stories about robots, and we need to pay attention to what those stories reflect about the way we see our increasingly autonomous tools.

Perhaps you'll recall 1996's Multiplicity, starring Michael Keaton, where the protagonist uses a double of himself to do the boring work so he can have time for his personal life. However, there's just never enough time, so he makes another copy to take care of his personal life so he can relax alone. Of course, that means he avoids all the hard parts of life, and therefore damages everything that matters to him. More recently, 2009's severely underrated Surrogates, starring Bruce Willis, features an entire society run by artificial copies of people who prefer to stay at home and face only vicariously the uncertainties of a sometimes unpredictable and dangerous world. The result is that these people can be said to have experiences, but they're not truly living. Finally, 2022's M3GAN shows us a reluctant foster parent who builds an artificial person to take charge of the complicated responsibilities of childrearing in her stead, with all the predictable catastrophes that ensue.

The common moral of these stories is that life can't be all play and no work. Every day has dull moments that no one can endure for you. At the same time, our doubles can quickly, and understandably, decide they've had enough of all work and no play. It has happened historically with real slaves, and it keeps happening in fiction with robots. Let's never forget that the word "robot" comes from the Czech for "slave." Robot stories are a subset of a larger set of cautionary tales about the persistent human vice of creating one class of people who do the dirty work and another class who enjoy the products of that work. We could call it the feudal impulse, or the aristocratic impulse, or any other variant that expresses the dehumanizing process of trying to do to our fellow human what we did to horses and cattle. It has cost us centuries of blood to learn that it's evil to domesticate thy neighbor. The usefulness of robot stories, as happens with many science fiction tropes, is in how they turn the tables. It's clear that we must not turn people into tools. What happens when tools turn into people?

The fascinating thing about 2023's Robots is that this time the motivation for the protagonists to resort to doubles of themselves is not to be free to have personal lives. Instead, the part of their time that they outsource to the robots is precisely their personal lives. Charles is a shallow lecher who has no patience for going on dates and doesn't meet a woman by himself until it's time for sex. Elaine is a kept woman who enjoys expensive gifts from men she has no interest in ever seeing. Both characters not only use their robots to minimize contact with other people; they use those other people to maintain an unrealistic lifestyle. Chaos erupts when these two predators try to use each other.

This being a romantic comedy, a question naturally arises: What can drive people to avoid participating in what this genre has been telling us is the most enjoyable form of interpersonal connection? If it were, say, the kind of extreme dystopia where feelings are illegal, one could conceivably buy a story where people prefer not to have dates. It would barely stand out. But within the conventions of romantic comedies, there's a higher bar to justify a story where the protagonists are established as averse to human contact. These two are irredeemably awful people who give us no reason to root for them. It takes more suspension of disbelief when they eventually fall in love than when their robotic substitutes do.

In the past year, a meme has been making the rounds on social media: AI making art and literature while we remain leashed to boring jobs is the opposite of what we hoped AI would bring. The assumption always was that we'd keep the fun for ourselves. But a self-destructive pattern of avoiding life cannot be so easily controlled, much less when the tools we use to avoid life get a say on the matter. And Robots clearly wants to engage with the political subtext of this idea, although the attempt to do so is rather clumsy.

At the start of the movie, a fictional governor of New Mexico is giving a speech celebrating the deportation of all undocumented immigrants back to Mexico. And throughout the movie, Mexico is mentioned in passing as a place where robots can live in freedom. Apart from the reversal in roles between both sides of the border, which feels like the setup for a joke that never pays off, the movie doesn't seem interested in further exploring the thematic parallel between exploited immigrants and exploited machines. The theme is simply alluded to, but not developed. The viewer can readily make the connection between both ways for rich white people to avoid doing any effort, but the possible routes of the ending are constrained by the expectations of a romantic comedy, which leaves the message unfinished.

Robots is easy to dismiss, as Multiplicity and Surrogates were in their day. And I'm not going to try to make a case that these movies are secretly brilliant or anything. Robots in particular is unaware of the difference between being funny and being ridiculous. But each of these movies marks a step in the evolving expression of what scares us about depending on smart tools, or in more accurate terms, outsourcing our lives. There's a key moment in Robots when it looks like the duplicates are scheming to take over the originals' identities, and that would have been fascinating to watch. But the movie doesn't dare deviate too far from the structure of a romantic comedy, and that presents a problem, given its premise. For the story to happen at all, it needs many bizarre character choices that come with deeply questionable jokes (including serial catfishing and attempted sexual assault on a man shown for laughs). If anything about this movie deserves to be part of the ongoing discussion on AI anxiety, it's the part where we can be so scared of the world that we send our machines to do the loving for us.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.