Mecha Love: A Review of Steven Spielberg's A.I.

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Dennis Weiss
York College of Pennsylvania

    In Life on the Screen Sherry Turkle argues that today the ontological distance between people and machines has become harder to maintain. "As human beings become increasingly intertwined with the technology and with each other via technology, old distinctions between what is specifically human and specifically technological become more complex." (21) Our new technologically enmeshed relationships, Turkle argues, provoke in us reflection on what it means to be human. Where once dreams and beasts were the test objects that provoked reflection, today it is the computer that is our key test object. As Turkle observes, like dreams and beasts, the computer stands on the margins.

    It is a mind that is not yet a mind. It is inanimate yet interactive. It does not think, yet neither is it external to thought. It is an object, ultimately a mechanism, but it behaves, interacts, and seems in a certain sense to know. It confronts us with an uneasy kinship. After all, we too behave, interact, and seem to know, and yet are ultimately made of matter and programmed DNA. We think we can think. But can it think? Could it have the capacity to feel? Could it ever said to be alive? (22)
  1. These precisely are the weighty issues we are supposed to believe lie at the heart of the new Steven Spielberg movie A.I., which seeks no less than to create a fairy tale for the digital age, a digital Pinocchio in which the issue of what it means to be human or machine, "orga" or "mecha," takes central stage. Is David, the A.I. of the title, merely the latest model Super-Toy, a sop to a grieving mother, or is he something more than the mere sum of his parts, a mechanical boy, but one with a heart? This is the philosophical terrain Spielberg sets out to explore. Unfortunately, however, he is poorly equipped to make sense of these thorny questions. Rather than creating a new test object that might provoke reflection on what any number of techno-enthusiasts suggest is a likely future for humankind, Spielberg has constructed a disjointed pastiche of a movie that, like David, is little more than the sum of its various parts.

  2. A.I. has already garnered much attention for its attempt to wed the sensibilities of its two directors, Kubrick and Spielberg. Structurally, the movie is itself something of a mish-mash of styles and narratives techniques, its three parts distinct visually and thematically: the home life of David, his trip through the underworld of mecha and the Flesh Fairs, his eventual redemption at the hands of the space aliens. The effect is a tripartite film in which the parts never quite gel. On another level, the movie is an uneven joining of the modern and the postmodern, the story of Pinocchio transported to the digital culture via Cybertronics of New Jersey. A.I. gives us a postmodern Pinocchio reflectively aware of his status as the puppet that wants to be a boy. He's both inside and outside the story, challenging the boundaries between the fictional world of the story and the cinematic real world he inhabits (and presumably our "real" world, just another simulacrum no doubt). As the Pinocchio story challenges David to reflect on his status as mecha and impels him on his quest for the Blue Fairy, we are supposed to be challenged by David to reflect on our nature as orga. The web site for A.I. underscores this challenge by providing an opportunity to connect to a chatter-bot and carry on a conversation, presumably on the philosophical virtues of the movie.

  3. On yet another level, each part of the movie itself visually and thematically is an allusion to other earlier science fiction films. The themes raised by David's status have been explored, often more effectively, in countless sci-fi movies, Twilight Zone episodes, and in the various incarnations of the Star Trek franchise, especially in its reflections on the status of the android Data. The sunken Statue of Liberty recalls the climactic scene of Planet of the Apes (original). The "lava-lamp"aliens seem reminiscent of Spielberg's own Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the watery world recalls Kevin Costner's own multi-million dollar debacle, Water World. The scientist who creates life in the form of a child is a story told in Demon Seed and the shifting boundaries between mecha and orga explored in countless films, including Stepford Wives, West World, Blade Runner, and others. Rouge City and the dark gritty second part of the film evoke scenes from Kubrick's Clockwork Orange and Verhoeven's mutant life on Mars in the film Total Recall. A.I.'s Flesh Fair suggests a combination of W.W.F. Smack Down and Comedy Central's Battle Bots. The conflict between mecha and orga is central to a number of films, including the Terminator series and several films inspired by Philip K. Dick, including Blade Runner and Screamers.

  4. Many of these progenitors to A.I. actually do a better job raising the fundamental philosophical issues A.I. aspires to. On a very basic level the movie fails to provide any context for understanding its central dilemma: the conflict between mecha and orga and how it is David fits into it. No time is wasted on any kind of philosophical discussion about what it means to create life or what it could mean to create synthetic life with the capacity for feelings or emotions. Why is love singled out as the desideratum of Professor Hobby? Why would Cybernetica desire to create a boy who could love and what would propel the Stinton's to bring him home? Why is there such animus against the mecha? What distinguishes David from the rest of the mecha, other than his disarming appeal and good looks? While the movie provides little context in which to address these questions, it does suggest a number of possible approaches to answering them.

  5. Within the context of the movie itself, we might look for answers to questions about David's status and nature by examining his creator, Professor Hobby and his motivations for creating David. The realm of artificial intelligence has since its inception provoked questions about the masculine desire to appropriate women's capacity to create life and this is a theme regularly returned to in movies about computers. In Demon Seed, Alex Harris creates Proteus as a replacement for his dead daughter. War Games focuses on the creation of the artificially intelligent Joshua, also the name of the deceased son of its creator, Dr. Stephen Falken. In The Second Self Turkle argues that many people in the field of A.I. think of themselves as creators of life, clearly indicated in a conversation she had with two M.I.T. professors of artificial intelligence. "Don Norman says, 'I have a dream to create my own robot. To give it my intelligence. To make it mine, my mind. To see myself in it. Ever since I was a kid.' Roger Schank is listening to our conversation. 'So who doesn't?' he interjects. 'I have always wanted to make a mind. Create something like that. It is the most exciting thing you could do. The most important thing anyone could do'" (260). Hans Moravec's influential text Mind Children suggests as well the desire to create the next generation of life: "The things we are building are our children, the next generations. They're carrying on all our abilities, only they're doing it better" (8). Professor Hobby fits into a long tradition of male programmers and engineers, themselves heirs to Dr. Frankenstein, united in their desire to create life in the laboratory. United as well in their seeming desire for male children. As one listens to Norman, Schank, and Moravec, it's clear that the gender of the children being created is exclusively male. They are only referred to in terms of "he." The world of artificial intelligence is largely a world celebrating the masculine values of reason, logic, and order. While Hobby desires to create a child who feels and loves, the movie not-so-subtly exposes its own misogynistic stance. Hobby is first presented manipulating and abusing the female mecha Sheila, stabbing her in the hand, asking her to undress in front of a group of scientists. Gigolo Joe is first shown seducing Patricia, a woman beaten by her boyfriend or husband and whose primary concern is how anatomically correct or exaggerated Joe is. It takes a mecha like Joe to make a real woman of her, a goddess. Joe's second client, Samantha Bevins, is killed by her husband and Joe is framed for the murder, presumably because the husband had been mortified to learn that his wife was seeing a mecha. Even Monica doesn't escape from the film's stereotypes. While Cybernetica's scientists engage in the movie's only brief philosophical discussion, we see Sheila, blithely unaware, applying her makeup. The next scene, taking place twenty months later, opens with Monica, similarly applying her makeup. While the rational, male scientist contemplates the creation of life, Monica and her mecha sisters are concerned primarily with make-up and Chanel No. 5. Monica's role in the family is the traditional maternal one, and there seems little indication that David wasn't meant to be mothered, rather than parented.

  6. What gives rise to Hobby's desire to create life? Initially A.I. suggests that he is motivated by the very same desires as motivated God. After disclosing his plan, an employee of Cybernetica, an African American woman, wonders what obligations a person would have towards a mecha who can love. Would we be obligated to care for it, to love it in return? Hobby replies that God faced the same dilemma and yet was not deterred in his creation of Adam. Hobby is the magisterial scientist, god-like in his power to create life. Yet later it is suggested that Hobby's true motivation is perhaps the desire to re-create his dead son. Hobby wants not a child who can be loved, nor even a child with a good heart, which is what Pinocchio must finally develop before he can be transformed into a real boy. Rather, Hobby wants a child that will love unconditionally. Is Hobby perhaps trying to expiate guilt over the loss of his son? Ultimately, though, his actions cannot but fail to bring expiation. Hobby wants to create a boy who can love but one for whom our own obligation to love and care in return remains an open question. Hobby is ultimately motivated by the narcissistic desire to have a son who loves him but for whom he need not be encumbered with any reciprocal obligations. The moral vacuousness of the computer scientist is suggested by his willingness to turn his son into an object for capitalist exploitation. David, his dead child, is recreated only to become a popular Super-Toy, boxed and on sale to the lonely and needy of the world. "David: At Last—A Love of Your Own." Hobby's attitude toward his creations is finally little different from the attitude of the participants in the Flesh Fair. David ultimately seems so human because the humans around him appear so inhuman. Indeed, finally there is a strange inverse relationship between Hobby and David, a parallel between David's single-minded obsession to gain his mother's love and Hobby's single-minded obsession to resurrect his lost son. Perhaps David's obsession to love is the mirror of Hobby's need for love, his narcissism.

  7. Moving outside the context of the movie, A.I. can also be understood in terms of Turkle's discussion of the romantic reaction to earlier thinking machines. Turkle's work demonstrates the manner in which computers upset our traditional distinctions between machines and people by seemingly possessing qualities once only attributed to human beings: reason and speech. Children come to see computers and computer toys as psychological machines, possessing a rationality and capacity for speech once only attributed to people. This leads them to readjust their categories by suggesting that while computers and human beings can both think, people are special because they can feel, both emotionally and physically (Life 81). As one of Turkle's subjects, a twelve-year-old boy coincidentally named David, tells her

  8. When there are computers who are just as smart as people, the computer will do a lot of the jobs, but there will still be things for the people to do. They will run the restaurants, taste the food, and they will be the ones who will love each other, have families and love each other (81).
  9. Turkle argues that people respond to "thinking machines" by erecting a new barrier meant to distinguish themselves from machines, reasserting the uniqueness of human beings and reasserting the boundary between people and machines. "Computers thought; people felt" (81). Turkle details what she refers to as the "romantic reaction" to machines:

  10. [Many adults] saw the computer as a psychological object, conceded that it might have a certain rationality, but sought to maintain a sharp line between computers and people by claiming that the essence of human nature was what computers couldn't do. Certain human actions required intuition, embodiment, or emotions. Certain human actions depended on the soul and the spirit, the possibilities of spontaneity over programming. (82)
  11. But Life on the Screen's central argument is that the boundary between orga and mecha has already been breeched. Turkle argues that technology in the postmodern era, both the emergent, distributed nature of parallel processing machines and the bio-technology growing out of the Human Genome Project, challenges the easy distinction between human and machine by creating machines that are lifelike and suggesting that humans are essentially mechanical, the product of genetic programming. It is this territory that A.I. presumably explores. In his presumed capacity to love, David is meant to provoke in the viewer reflection on the disappearing boundary between human and machine.

  12. But ought David to provoke this kind of reaction? Is he, adopting Turkle's phrase, an "object to think with," an object with which to think about human nature? I would suggest not and a brief comparison with the central myth of the movie, Pinocchio, might suggest why. Interestingly, Pinocchio was also central to an earlier exploration of human nature, Willard Gaylin's On Being and Becoming Human, which defends the uniqueness of the human being. "Mankind is that noble discontinuity…a thing unto ourselves; in a class of our own; sui generis" (7). Central to his view of human nature, a view of human nature which in its outlines shares much with those developed by anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz and philosophical anthropologists such as Arnold Gehlen, Max Scheler, and Michael Landmann, is an emphasis on our premature birth. Unlike animals, human beings are instinctually deficient and born in a premature state, necessitating an exaggerated state of prolonged early development. The lengthy period of dependency of the human infant, entails that its development is completed in a social and cultural context. A mature human being is the product of developing within the context of a human culture. Our instinctual deficiency has as its correlate our cultural nature. For Gaylin, Pinocchio is a story about that process of development, the transformation from a block of wood with the mere potential to talk and cry to a boy with a good heart.

  13. Pinocchio ultimately is a parable of the process by which a caring and loving human being is created out of the narcissistic self of the infant .… He must learn to be a human child. He must appreciate the specific qualities of identification, imagination, and empathy which are at the roots of human love. To become truly human, he must first learn to hear the voice of conscience; to identify with those who are hungry, poor, and in misery; to appreciate the profound joy of giving that transcends the ephemeral pleasure of receiving. Or, in the words of his guardian angel, the Blue Fairy, to possess all that she subsumes under the heading of "a good heart." (129)
  14. It is precisely this aspect of Pinocchio that Gaylin emphasizes, the developmental process, that is completely missing in David and which ultimately undermines any claim he might have to humanity. As Hobby himself suggests early in the movie, David will have been created as a perfect child, "caught in a freeze frame." David comes into the world already complete and his quest for the Blue Fairy never suggests the growth and development that Pinocchio undergoes on the path towards realizing his potential and developing a good heart. Our own capacity to love and experience feelings, while a potential we are each born with, is, as well, an outgrowth of our earliest moments of dependence on caring and loving parents. It is out of those early intimate contacts that our capacity for feelings and love, and their particular meanings and significance for us, is born. But of course David never goes through this process. His love is not there one minute and there the next, brought into existence in a completely nonhuman way, through the magical incantation of an arbitrary string of words. David's love is not the product of a caring and intimate relationship between a parent and a child. Rather, it is the product of an imprinting protocol.

  15. Implicit in A.I. is a sociobiological or ethological approach to love. Love is imprinting. To speak of David's love for Monica implies that there is some strong similarity or continuity between love and imprinting, a theme central to many sociobiological accounts of love. Consider, for instance, Melvin Konner's discussion of love in his early and influential sociobiological text The Tangled Wing. His discussion of love is prefaced with confessions of his own inability to relate to his newborn daughter. "My general impression as a scientist—that newborn babies all looked the same and were quite unappealing, much less appealing, say, than a Barbie doll, or a pony—was confirmed by my experience as a father" (291). Konner wonders what could possibly motivate a parent to love an infant when, as he writes, she ruins his sleep, his health, his work, his relationship with his wife, and is ugly (292). Central to his discussion of love is the phenomenon of imprinting, first emphasized in Konrad Lorenz's work on birds and ducks and his demonstration that many species of birds will imprint on any available close object or person, "a process by which a one-day-old chick or duckling forms an indelible penchant for some object or other in its environment. Normally this turns out to he the mother" (294). Much of the process of imprinting is wired-in and the more a chick or duckling follows, "the more it wants to follow, and, after a certain point, punishing it for following tends to increase rather than decrease its following behavior…" (295). While Konner suggests that imprinting is not love, he is "inclined to think it is relevant to love" (296). "I think that explorations of the neurology of imprinting, the neurology of mammalian attachments, and the comparative brain anatomy of birds and mammals, will one day test and perhaps bear out the hypothesis of similarity" (296).

  16. By insisting that David can love, that an imprinting protocol is sufficient to create love, A.I. suggests a sociobiological account of human feeling and love, consistent perhaps with the diminished view of human nature suggested by the movie. We are the species, after all, who through our own recklessness permitted green house gases to melt the polar ice caps and wreak havoc on the world. We are the lonely and desperate ones who, out of a desire to be loved, are willing to seek out the services of mechanical escorts and who out of our fear and insecurity celebrate life by participating in an orgy of destruction and violence. We are the narcissistic and self-involved ones who are willing to market and buy children guaranteed to love us, even if, perhaps especially if, we have no obligation to love in return. We're finally not that different than the mechanical toy-boy David. While Pinocchio is the manifest image of A.I., perhaps its latent image is ice, the frozen state of stasis in which there is no development and little feeling. The human beings in A.I. are simply biding time, stuck in a past which has failed them but which they are unable to move beyond. They all share in Martin's fate at the beginning of the movie; they are frozen in time no less than he, failing to develop or grow. Hobby is obsessed with recreating his lost son. Monica is unable to move past the loss of Martin. These are people who themselves are emotionally stunted, whose development has been foreclosed upon. Monica and Henry re-create a suburban paradise of birthday parties, French press coffee, and Chanel while the rest of the world is supposedly falling to pieces. The past is buried under the water of the once frozen ice caps and the participants in the Flesh Fair are frozen along with it, seeking to create a more human future by purging themselves of artificiality, their nostalgia little more than a dead end. Within two thousand years, human beings will be gone and humanity will exist only as a memory, frozen in time, encoded in the hard drive a Super Toy Boy, the enduring memory of the human race. Finally, perhaps the message of A.I. is that the mecha are fated to inherit Earth because human beings are, well, so inhuman. Long live the mecha!

Works Cited

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