A reading of the first five issues of Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn’s Alex + Ada leads to an examination of some of the issues surrounding the relationship between humans and artificially intelligent machines.
If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the video below of Spike Jonze, director/screenwriter of the Oscar-nominated film Her, in a slightly cringe-inducing interview with BBC Newsnight‘s Emily Maitlis:
It appears that Jonze’s passive-aggressive petulance in the interview stems primarily from Maitlis referring to the film as being about “falling in love with your software,” and her continued pursuit of the line of questioning that Jonze’s film is some sort of commentary on the changing relationship between man and sentient machines. Jonze insists that the film is about human relationships, and the fact that the nominally female romantic lead just so happens to be an artificial intelligence is incidental in the greater scheme of things. It doesn’t help that Maitlis subtly suggests early in the interview that there is a somewhat sexist slant to the artificial intelligence’s portrayal as an “ideal woman” who exists solely to serve the male lead, something Maitlis would later restate on Twitter, calling the film a “sad, male fetish fantasy of [a] disembodied female who does his bidding.”
I can understand Jonze’s annoyance, even if he does come across as a bit of a condescending, overly contentious git—he clearly feels that Maitlis missed the whole point of the movie’s underlying metaphor and that she’s taking the film’s central conceit too literally. All that said, I don’t think anyone who has seen Her can blame the journalist for keying in on the man-software relationship aspect of the film’s surface narrative. Whether Jonze likes it or not, audiences will sometimes come away from a media experience with different messages and insights from what the author intended. In addition. the state of artificial intelligence and robotics research has progressed to the point where portrayals of sentient software and machines in contemporary popular entertainment lend themselves to being “read straight” as literal speculation about the implications of near-future technology, as opposed to metaphors for personal, social, or political phenomena with only a marginal connection to technological and scientific issues.
This wasn’t always the case, however. As we’ve discussed in this space before, the first use of the word “robot” in fiction to refer to a sentient mechanical humanoid can be traced to Czech playwright Karel Čapek‘s 1920 play R.U.R.—the title is an initialism for “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” with “robot” being derived from “robota,” which means “labor” or “job” in Slovak, Polish, and the Czech of Čapek’s time. In R.U.R., the robots are “artificial people” employed as cheap, expendable workers who eventually revolt against their human masters. While we can certainly interpret R.U.R. as a prescient work of proto-science-fiction looking far forward to the yet-to-be-invented fields of artificial intelligence and robotics, given the social and political climate at the time of its writing, it probably makes more sense to view the story mainly as an allegory for the dehumanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution, as well as industrialization’s role in catalyzing the widespread ideology-fueled unrest in Eastern and Central Europe during the early 20th century. R.U.R.‘s idea of actual, sentient mechanical people wasn’t so much science-grounded speculation about the future of technology as it was a symbolic, fantasy-based representation.
Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn’s comic book Alex + Ada (issue #1, released late last year, is reviewed here) finds itself in a similar space as Spike Jonze’s Her, in that it also has a male lead’s interactions with a gynoid artificial intelligence serving as a metaphor for a male-female romantic relationship.
This isn’t the first time that Luna has used a science-fantasy surface narrative to explore more mundane, personal themes. With younger sibling and frequent collaborator Joshua, Luna tackled young adult male romantic and sexual insecurity in Girls. Just five issues into the series, however, and it’s clear that Alex + Ada—which features art by Luna and a story jointly written by Luna and Vaughn (with a script by Vaughn)—is a more thoughtfully considered work than Girls which, while well-intentioned as far as its general outlook, was saddled with homiletic dialogue and a too on-the-nose metaphor of aliens in the form of beautiful young women disrupting life in a small American town.
Alex + Ada features as its leads Ada, an advanced gynoid robot, and Alex, to whom Ada is given as a surprise birthday gift, and who is still recovering emotionally from a romantic break-up. Where the comic exceeds Luna’s prior work—and Her, to an extent—is in the depth and layering of its intended and implied themes. Like Jonze’s Her, Luna and Vaughn’s Alex + Ada is a work that uses the metaphor of technology to say something about the nature of human relationships, but a straight reading of Alex + Ada‘s surface narrative as a work of speculative fiction also yields insights about the human condition through the prism of our interactions with intelligent machines.
The series’ first four issues has Ada as a nonsentient being. Ada is certainly intelligent in the sense that it can follow commands from Alex, but Ada is really nothing more than a very advanced Furby or Roomba packaged in a humanoid body. Even on that level, most readers will find a disarming charm to the robot. Much of that has to do with Ada’s portrayal in the script as a loyal, guileless helper and Luna’s artwork, but I suspect it is also a reflection of the human capacity for empathy.
Take, for example, the stories cited by journalist Joel Garreau in his 2007 feature piece on military robotics for The Washington Post entitled “Bots on the Ground.” In the case of one hardy multi-legged explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) robot designed to seek out landmines and detonate them by stepping on them (thus losing a leg and sustaining damage in the process), the colonel in charge of the testing called a halt to the trial at the sight of the burnt and badly damaged robot, struggling to pull itself with its one remaining leg towards the final target. The colonel’s reason? He felt that the test was “inhumane” and could not stand to see the robot suffer any further.
In the same article, Ted Bogosh, who ran an EOD robot repair unit during his time serving with the US Marine Corps, talks about military robot operators forming emotional bonds with their mechanical partners, with many giving them names and treating them almost like pets, and grieving over their loss when they get destroyed in battle.
This phenomenon isn’t just restricted to the battlefield, where some might argue that extreme emotional stresses and psychological pressures contribute to people forming emotional attachments to robots. Inspired by observations she made while a student at the MIT Media Lab, artist and producer Freedom Baird, along with Radiolab‘s Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, conducted what she described as an “emotional Turing Test” that demonstrated that children who know that the robotic Furby is a toy will nonetheless treat it more similarly to a living animal like a hamster than a toy incapable of reacting to its environment such as a Barbie doll.
Indeed, even before the events depicted in this week’s Alex + Ada #5, where Alex finally sees the results of his decision to illegally hack Ada and give it full sentience—transforming the robot from an “it” to a fully-formed and self-directed “her”—the reader is already invested in the idea of Ada’s nascent personhood.
In my review of Alex + Ada #1, I stated my hope that Luna and Vaughn would make the most of “a premise absolutely brimming with speculative potential that goes beyond the entertaining but often casual examination of gender issues the Lunas’ most popular works engage in.” I’m not sure where they plan to take the story from here nor have I gone out of my way to learn what the comic is supposed to be really about, but if nothing else, I really do appreciate how its treatment of its characters and subject matter has made me reflect on the topics of machine consciousness and how we constantly seek out, or even bestow, humanity in even the most unlikely of subjects.
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