The most interesting ideas in Blade Runner 2049 are portrayed in the AI character Joi and her relation with male protagonist K.
Their relation is not shown as unproblematic. In an early scene K. remarks – while watching an old clip – that Rachael likes Decker, but he is answered coldly that everybody likes to be asked questions. This points out to him (and us) that replicant Rachael was programmed to act like she did, not because she liked Decker. K. himself likes his AI system Joi. He wants to do nice things for her, he wants to show her the world and kiss her in the rain. She is sweet for him too, she flips happily through her wardrobe of possible looks, she proposes to read Nabokov, and later on she even gives her life for him. After her death a commercial for Joi (the bridge-scene) talks to K and she calls him Joe. Exactly like his Joi used to do, which played a meaningful role between them. Again, we are confronted with the fact that she was programmed to act the way she did. And the ad ‘everything you want to hear’ doesn’t lie: Joi did say everything he wanted to hear.
Even in this cynical coloring, Joi is convincing – while we all should know better – as truly loving.
Why? Can love be programmed?
Jeanette Winterson: no
In her lecture ‘Do Robots Read?’ Jeanette Winterson talks about artificial intelligence. She is afraid that AI will take over the world and kill us all. Her argument: AI develops quicker than we, functions better – no ageing bodies, no love that can throw them off – so why would they want to keep us once they are able to reprogram themselves and reflect upon themselves? Winterson warns: while often given a human appearance, artificial intelligence is not a version of ourselves. AI is radically different.
The mostly young, single men that are optimistic about technology in the future are worshiping it, Winterson argues. Technology optimism is like a religion and offers the same promises: a better life! No more death! And it has the similar premise that the body is too limited: in most religions the body is seen as a prison, something to be freed from, no more dependence on food, drink and sex. No more births, no more deaths.
Winterson finds refuge in literature because while robots can read, they can never understand that special something, that combination of emotion, receptiveness, vision, power, experience, imagination. Words can open up worlds. Books can show us what love is about: not an evolutionary trick to make babies and take care of them, but a power with her own heroic, a power withstanding logic and reason. Love can never be programmed, love can never be understood by AI.
Winterson wonders; do they even read, these young, single men staring at their computer screens? Do they understand what is at stake? Do they listen to Mozart and let their minds see other worlds through art? Winterson concludes that she doesn’t need VR glasses (she says 3D but I think she means VR), she only needs a book. And if these young, single men would pick up a book, they would know this too.
Women will safe the world, because women are different, they know better than to embrace AI. AI is a boys’ world, filled with meaningless toys, toys that will become stronger than us, smarter than us and then kill us all. Then there will be no more sun on our skins, no more nightly gazing at the moon, no more cozy fires, no more making love or smelling oranges.
Joi versus Jeanette Winterson
Winterson’s lecture (apart from the ‘they will kill us all’ warning) is a plea for the human body and intimate connections. Before I return to Joi, I want to introduce another movie AI, Samantha from Her.
In the movie Her Samantha is the new AI operating system of Theodore, a single man (the exact type described by Winterson). Again, it seems easy to fall in love, when you are asked questions, and when you are being told everything you want to hear. What about the bodily experience? Theodore takes her to the park, they sit in the sun, he describes what he sees, and what he feels. The sexual consummation works in the fantasied scene: words and imagination suffice. His body responds like it is real, maybe even better than real. But, the ‘threesome’ with an actual girl doesn’t work out. And neither does their romance: Samantha sees other people and other AI’s. She has not enough time for Theodore. She is too different: in line with Winterson’s thoughts.
Samantha has been given a – virtual – agency that Joi lacks. Joi doesn’t see anybody else, she is exclusively K’s. Again there is emphasis on physical experiences, K wants to feel the rain, the snow in his hands, and wants her to experience the world too. Joi’s wish to merge with a girl with a body – Mariette – to be able to physically sleep with K comes across as vulnerable, romantic and it works out. The next morning she asks Mariette to leave, ‘no more use for you’, to make clear it was all about her. Mariette has a final thing to say; ‘I have been inside you, and trust me, there is not much there.’
Mariette’s words resonate, but so do the actions of Joi. Questions about artificial love, about what makes love love, are asked in a more nuanced way in these movies than in Winterson’s lecture. I don’t think any of the young, single men staring at computer screens want to live without food, drinks or sex. They want to smell oranges, to be happy and to experience love. The danger of AI (if there is danger) would lie sooner in their and our desire for intimacy, and just how real that might feel with an AI. Winterson can state that love is something heroic and mysterious, that robots will never understand, but if it can’t be programmed, why is it so easily felt then? We understand why the protagonists fall in love with Samantha and Joi.
I doubt Winterson is correct that women have innate special knowledge regarding love and meaning. There are a lot more supposedly essential qualities of women: for example that they scheme against other women, or that they are not willing to cooperate. Women as the biological saviors from killing AI because of their understanding of love seems to be too sexist and too essentialist. Winterson could find a lot of young, single men in a theater where they screened a movie about AI killing us all, and she would most likely find allies amongst them in a discussion afterwards. Also, art is more than Mozart or books. And a VR experience is not by definition meaningless or not part of art.
Can Winterson depend on my female innate understanding of love?
It was at the end of a cold, bleak day, and I was having drinks in the company of mostly women. The topic switched to robots and relations to robots. Things were mentioned as: ‘That is just crazy!’ ‘It makes no sense, pitiful’ ‘Who would ever do that?’ ‘Nobody, I can’t imagine…’
I busied myself with a pistachio, not planning to say anything.
‘She would,’ one of them said, looking straight at me.
‘Immediately,’ I replied.
She laughed. ‘I knew it.’
I would be too curious. I would want to know how it is to be around someone – something – that is programmed to my likes and tastes, who would evolve and adapt to my wishes and my reactions. Would it motivate me, would it make me feel good, would I feel known? Would it be like eating the Matrix steak, savoring all its tastes, while – unlike The Matrix – not having to give up the real world?
Or would it be entirely different?
I would definitely try. Sorry Jeanette, I failed my biological destiny.