In Blade Runner 2049, the most interesting ideas are portrayed in the AI character Joi and her relation with K.
In an early scene K. remarks – while watching an old clip – that Rachael likes Decker.
He is answered coldly that everybody likes to be asked questions, it makes one feel important. In this way it is pointed out to him (and us) that replicant Rachael was programmed to be like that.
K. himself likes his AI system Joi. He wants to do nice things for her, 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 this, the commercial for Joi (the bridge-scene) talks to K and she calls him Joe. Exactly like his Joi did, which played a meaningful role in the movie. Again, we are confronted with the fact that she was programmed to be like that. 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 is that? Can love be programmed?
Jeanette Winterson: no
In her lecture ‘Do Robots Read?’ Jeanette Winterson talked 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 is, as soon as they can 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 worshipping it, according to Winterson. Technology optimism is like a religion. Technology offers the same promises as religion; a better life! No more death! And it has the similar premisse 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 defends 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 as an evolutionary trick to make babies and take care of them, but as a power with her own heroic, a power withstanding logic and reason. Love can never be programmed, love can never be understood by AI.
Those young, single men that stare at their computer screens, Winterson wonders, do they even read? Do they understand what is at stake? Do they listen to Mozart and let their minds see other worlds through art? Winterson states that she doesn’t need VR glasses (she said 3D but I think she meant VR), she only needs a book. And if these young, single men would pick up a book, they would know this too.
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 and then kill us all. Then there will be no more sun on our skins, no more nightly gazing at the moon or a cozy fire, no more making love, or smelling oranges.
Joi versus Jeanette
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 (targeted 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, and 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’, be happy, and experience love. The danger of AI (if there is one) 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 that the protagonists fall in love with Samantha and Joi.
About that special knowledge women – according to Winterson – have regarding love and meaning, should we add another ‘essence’ of women: that they can never change the world, because they are too busy applying make-up and scheming against other women?
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 find allies amongst them. Art is more than Mozart, or books, and a VR experience is not meaningless by definition.
What about me?
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, savouring all its tastes, while not having to give up the real world?