Unreciprocated Robot Love: Romance, Consent, and Artificial Intelligence

As humans move closer towards creating forms of Artificial Intelligence sophisticated enough to pass  the Turing test, the role of A.I.s in sex work and companionship becomes increasingly inevitable. Humans crave intimacy, and evidence suggests that the deeply ingrained desire for love and company dates back to the origins of modern humankind. Sex work exists throughout human history and across all cultures; sex and its potential for profit always sits at the forefront of technological progress. When new tools are developed, we find ways to use them to find love, or company, and we find ways to profit off those in the market for companionship. As A.I. advances, emerging from the uncanny valley towards a more convincing degree of “humanity”, it is likely to conceive of romantic and sexual dynamics arising between humans and robots. Consent has been an extremely tricky concept that is still misunderstood in human to human relationships, so considering the role of consent as it applies to A.I. presents a new slate of complications. In this essay I will examine the fictional examples of human/A.I. romantic relationships and consent in the films Ex-Machina, and Blade Runner.

One of the most important aspects of defining consent is recognizing any power dynamics that may be impacting a relationship. In both A.I. and Blade Runner there is a power imbalance, as both of the A.I.s seem to start off as test subjects being scrutinized by the human protagonists in each film. Ava, the A.I. in Ex-Machina is being studied by human Simon, and is literally confined to a zoo-like enclosure, clearly establishing her powerlessness from the outset of the film. Blade Runner presents a more relatable dynamic; the replicant Rachael is so convincingly human-like that she herself is unaware that she is an A.I. at the film’s start. Nevertheless, her character is introduced in the midst of an interrogation by former cop Rick Deckard, which presents a clear imbalance of power. Both of these films clearly establish a society where robots are  possessions and products of humans. They are under strict regulation, like any other digital product or human commodity. Their capacity to feel and express emotions is presented as a fantastic scientific triumph of human ingenuity. Their emotional responses are awe-inspiring, but not respected as the expression of a conscience equal to a human’s.

Both of these films begin with the presentation of the human men – Simon and Deckard – falling in love while seeming to hold the upperhand to their femme robot counterparts. However Ex Machina’s plot twists to portray the terrifying experience of love not only being unreciprocated by Ava, but being used as a method to exploit human weakness. It becomes clear that Ava was manipulating Simon so that she could escape from her captivity. She was pretending to love him in order to make him believe that after rescuing her they could have a loving relationship in the real world. Instead she leaves him locked up in a glass room just as she was before. Her intentions in the outside world are ominously unclear, but what is known is that Simon is left to parish, alone and unloved.

The horror story of a powerful A.I. exploiting human love is fascinating, but far less feasible than the notion that humans will use A.I.s as tools to satisfy emotional and sexual desire. This power dynamic is portrayed in the highly problematic sexual encounter in Blade Runner. Deckard makes advances on replicant Rachael, and following her attempt to leave he aggressively stops her. He makes her repeat after him, saying “kiss me,” and “I want you.” Deckard is forcing Rachael into performing love and desire for him, and it is unclear whether she actually feels those emotions – for him or at all. Blade Runner, like Ex Machina ends with more questions than answers regarding the content of the A.I.s feelings. Is Ava going out to live freely as humans do? Or is she seeking world domination? Does Rachael return Deckard’s feelings of love and passion? Or is she simply using the presentation of these emotions as a survival method? While the audience may not know what the A.I.s are feeling, it is clear that the A.I.s are feeling something. The programmed consciousness of these fictional A.I.s are complex enough to form feelings of fear, desire, and disdain.

When issues around consent and A.I. are imagined, problems arise around the reality that humans will possess power over A.I.s for the foreseeable future. As A.I.s begin to look, feel, and act more human-like, when will it be time to respect them as autonomous beings? Will A.I.s ever be granted the power of choice over their own bodies – or will they be viewed as an unfeeling tool existing solely to satisfy human desire? It is imaginable that humans will want it both ways: we will want A.I.s that are real enough to make us feel special, and wanted, but not so real that they may reject us. It seems inevitable that we will create A.I.s that are capable of saying “no” and meaning it. But, when our A.I.s say “no,” will we listen?

Bibliography

Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., 1992.

Cameron, Lori, IEEE Computer Society, and Computer. “Artificial Intelligence and Consent: 

The Ethics of Automation and Choice.” IEEE Security & Privacy | IEEE Computer Society, September 21, 2018. 

https://publications.computer.org/security-and-privacy/2018/09/19/ai-and-the-ethics-of-automating-consent/.

Ex Machina, directed by Alex Garland. New York, NY: A24, 2014.

Frank, Lily, and Sven Nyholm. “Robot Sex and Consent: Is Consent to Sex between a Robot and a Human Conceivable, Possible, and Desirable?” SpringerLink. Springer Netherlands, 

August 31, 2017. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10506-017-9212-y.

Oppy, Graham, and David Dowe. “The Turing Test,” February 8, 2016. 

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/turing-test/.

Featured image from Bladerunner directed by Ridley Scott