I really didn’t see the book coming.
I’ve told my regular reader that I’ve gotten a job at the Tyler Public Library and this job has largely been a saving grace, but what I haven’t conveyed as clearly as I should have is that the job is also really fun. The people I work with are funny and are like a small family, the patrons that I help are fascinating for the fact that everyday they come up with some new request, the questions for info range from the obvious to the most esoteric (Do you know how much a 1969 Eagle Trailer is worth?), my supervisors are wonderful people, and best of all I’m surrounded by books. It’s this last part that makes me the most happy because there isn’t a day that’s gone by where I don’t wind up checking out a book. My wife’s greeting to me when I come home now has largely
become, “More books?” I have a problem, but I just don’t care because “look a collection of short stories by Woody Allen!”
I close at the Library, meaning my work days are usually in the afternoon and evening and my responsibility is to close up the library and shut the computer catalogs on the second floor down for the night. While I was walking around shutting them down I passed the graphic novel section. It’s a small area, nowhere near as large as I would want it to be, and in front of it there is a wooden table where patrons can leave books for staff to shelve. There was a large stack of religious book like there always is, but laid out beside the large pile was a book I recognized. Alex + Ada is a book that’s difficult to miss given the fact that the book is enormous (about 1 foot in length at least) with a white and blue cover with Alex and Ada staring at each other, a small blue dot on either of their heads.
Part of the reason I picked it up was the compulsion I spoke of before. A fair number of the books I check out in the last twenty minutes before work ends are either books of poetry or graphic novels. They read quickly and give me space between Lolita and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I checked the book out though because my friend Aleya had recently added it to her GoodReads account and had given it a pretty high rating. That’s it. Just these two connections allowed for a moment of serendipity which lead me to checking the book out.
Alex + Ada, like I said at the very beginning, was a book that I didn’t see coming. Once I read about what the story was about, a young man receiving an android for a birthday present, I figured it would be the standard Sci-fi trope. Boy receives a robot, Boy is unnerved by her docility so he finds a way to activate her sentience which is illegal, Girl robot wakes up and begins to discover life and reality, Boy starts to fall for robot and robot falls for Boy, somebody finds out and blabs to the cops, the police come and either kill the Boy or the robot, the end. And to be fair this is technically exactly what happens, however rather than end on the tragedy of the finale Johnathan Luna manages to tell a story about love that, apart from having a happy ending, recreates the narrative of the Human-Robot Love story into something that feels both relevant and important.
And the reason it feels so relevant is because of a recent article in The Gaurdian titled The Race to Build to the World’s First Sex Robot.
The article is part of the British website’s “Long Read” series, a weekly article published which explores some facet, development, philosophy, or notable event in society. A friend of mine introduced me to The Guardian, and after reading just a couple of the “Long Read’s” segments I’ve become hooked onto them. The Race to Build the World’s First Sex Robot was one of these articles and it managed to appear right as I was finishing Alex + Ada in a level of serendipity that could almost be maudlin. Both stories center around one female robot (if you can label robots with something as tenuous as genetic based sex). In the Gaurdian article the robot’s name is Harmony. She’s modeled with the standard approach to human beauty, big boobs, slim waist, young features, and represents years of the sex-industry’s manufacturing of the female form. However Jenny Kleeman, the author of the article, manages to convey that Harmony is not just a humping post, she has by design, a larger goal.
The major breakthrough of McMullen’s prototype is artificial intelligence that allows it to learn what its owner wants and likes. It will be able to fill a niche that no other product in the sex industry currently can: by talking, learning and responding to her owner’s voice, Harmony is designed to be as much a substitute partner as a sex toy.
Harmony cannot walk, but that’s not a big issue. McMullen explained that getting a robot to walk is very expensive and uses a lot of energy: the famous Honda P2 robot, launched in 1996 as the world’s first independently walking humanoid, drained its jet pack-sized battery after only 15 minutes.
“One day she will be able to walk,” McMullen told me. “Let’s ask her.” He turned to Harmony. “Do you want to walk?”
“I don’t want anything but you,” she replied quickly, in a synthesized cut-glass British accent, her jaw moving as she spoke.
“What is your dream?”
“My primary objective is to be a good companion to you, to be a good partner and give you pleasure and wellbeing. Above all else, I want to become the girl you have always dreamed about.”
McMullen has designed Harmony to be what a certain type of man would consider the perfect companion: docile and submissive, built like a porn star and always sexually available. Being able to walk might make her more lifelike, but it isn’t going to bring her closer to this ideal. At this stage, it is not worth the investment.
What’s revealed in this passage is the fact that capitalism is what’s behind this sex robot industry; a simple case of supply and demand. The sex industry has poured billions of dollars into realistic sex dolls, and a quick Google search to see the results can be both informative and at times frightening. The women dressed up in white panties and bras are enough to make one double-take or else follow links to determine whether or not it is a hoax. But beyond the realistic quality of these “women” is the fact that the major force behind the industry is not a concern to create robots that will revolutionize the robotics industry; it is to provide erotic satisfaction for many men.
Looking further into the article this becomes painfully clear:
RealDolls are fully customizable[sic], with 14 different styles of labia and 42 different nipple options. Upstairs, where the fine details are added, there were dozens of tubs of different coloured hand-painted, veined eyeballs. A “makeup face artist” was using a fine brush to paint eyebrows, freckles and smoky eyeshadow on a rack of faces. Shore explained that most of their customers send photographs of what they would like Abyss to recreate. With a subject’s written permission, they will make a replica of any real person. “We’ve had customers who bring their significant other in and get an exact copy doll made of them,” he said. Shore estimates that less than 5% of doll customers are women, even for their small range of male dolls. McMullen sculpted one of the three male face options to look exactly like himself. None of the male dolls are selling very well. In fact, Abyss is in the process of revamping its entire male line.
And then just a few passages later:
But as all right-thinking men would say, it’s Harmony’s brain that has most excited McMullen. “The AI will learn through interaction, and not just learn about you, but learn about the world in general. You can explain certain facts to her, she will remember them and they will become part of her base knowledge,” he said. Whoever owns Harmony will be able to mould[sic] her personality according to what they say to her. And Harmony will systematically try and find out as much about her owner as possible, and use those facts in conversation, “so it feels like she really cares”, as McMullen described it, even though she doesn’t care at all. Her memory, and the way she learns over time, is what McMullen hopes will make the relationship believable.
It’s usually at this point that I’m supposed to stand up and argue that this is a step too far and that it’s just a slippery slope until Terminator robots will be slaying human beings in the killing fields and the end of mankind will come about. The largest reason I won’t make that argument is because The Terminator film did a far better job of doing that for me, and also because it seems hyperbolic and unnecessary. Unlike some doomsday theorists who argue that the rise of AI will bring about the violent death of man I foresee a far more gloomier vision: the irrelevance of mankind.
The increase of AI systems has really demonstrated itself to be more of a capitalistic view of the future than one of science. Machines increasingly are coded to observe human behavior and, rather than offer solutions for complex problems in society, tend to be made to recommend me products based on my online shopping habits. If I liked reading Lolita perhaps I would enjoy The Ballad of the Sad Café. If I enjoyed eating at Fuzzy’s Taco perhaps I may enjoy TGI Fridays. If I enjoyed watching Dear White People perhaps I would enjoy 13th. These day to day suggestions have become increasingly blasé to me because they’re just part of life. Rather than violently trying to control me AI systems are in fact slowly and quietly removing my freewill through actions and suggestions that leave me comfortable and content.
This domesticity and familiarity with robotics and technology is a far more realistic suggestion of what the future is going to be like.
My reader may object now and argue that, is this really so bad? Technology is supposed to simplify the lives of human beings and help us overcome challenges and burdens in our life. Would having a robot that observes our behavior and adapts its own to make us happy really be so bad?
This is a complicated question because I honestly don’t know if there’s a clear answer. People should be happy, but there is a hidden conflict beneath this familiarity because it could bring about a negative change in the way human beings interact. When one interacts with a machine that conforms to your tastes and preferences it removes the human element of a relationship because other people disagree or hold different attitudes about what is right, wrong, pretty, ugly, grotesque, or beautiful. It’s the differences of opinions and the regular challenges by other people that a healthy personal self is able to develop. I grind my teeth every time somebody posts an alternative opinion on my Facebook page, or when someone close to me defends President Trump, but I recognize that that difference of opinion is what helps me keep myself grounded in reality.
Solipsism, the idea that one’s own mind is the only real thing in the universe, as a mode of being is corrosive because it’s a fueled narcissism that makes it impossible to connect and therefore sympathize or empathize with other people. And I suppose if my argument isn’t clear enough, the problem with turning sex robots into intelligent partners that are obedient and compliant with your every wish and preference, it stands to reason that the individual who lives and acts with one is going to be left completely disconnected to real humanity.
Kleeman is right then in making sure to post the alternative viewpoint that is growing against the sex robot industry:
Many of the “big issues’ discussed at the two-day event were first raised in 2015 by De Montfort University’s Dr Kathleen Richardson, when she launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots. An anthropologist and robot ethicist, Richardson claims that owning a sex robot is comparable to owning a slave: individuals will be able to buy the right to only care about themselves, human empathy will be eroded, and female bodies will be further objectified and commodified. As sex with robots is not a mutual experience, she says, it’s “part of rape culture”. We are so entertained by the idea of a robot sex partner, she believes, that we have failed to ask fundamental questions.
I met Richardson in March at the London Science Museum’s robot exhibition, where she eyed the distinctly non-sexual robots on display with deep suspicion. Sex robots rest on an idea that women are property, she said. “Sex is an experience of human beings – not bodies as property, not separated minds, not objects; it’s a way for us to enter into our humanity with another human being.” She dismissed the idea that humanoids could reduce sexual exploitation and violence against sex workers, arguing that the growth of internet pornography shows how technology and the sex trade reinforce each other.
The implications then for the sex robotic industry become messy and worrisome because, at least as far as I can tell, these are all serious charges that have a great amount to merit to them. Artificially intelligent sex robots blur the line of consent because they are programmed not to say no, but at the same time they are being marketed as a realistic human alternative to a real human relationship.
In the face of all of this my reader is probably wondering what the hell any of this has to do with Alex + Ada. Well in fact it has everything to do with the graphic novel, because as I noted at the start this review came about because I was left so tremendously star-struck by the book when I finished it. Unlike Kleeman’s article which left me troubled and disturbed Alex + Ada offered a far more optimistic vision of human/robot relations by hoping for love rather than just sex.
At the start of the graphic novel Alex doesn’t even want a robot, his grandmother buys one for him because he’s been mopey since his fiancé left him, and over time Alex observes that the dynamic of the relationship is troublesome. He sees in Ada a companion that has an absence of choice and so desperate to see if there’s a way to change her he finds an online group dedicated to helping robots attain a freedom and sentience. During one exchange between two members of the group Alex offers a line that reveals everything about his humanity:
And what makes you think you’ll want her if she’s sentient? A lot of our members were abandoned by their owners when they still didn’t turn out how they wanted.
I just…I see more in her. I want to know who she can really be.
There’s so many passages in Alex + Ada I could offer my reader to demonstrate its significance but this small quote seems enough to demonstrate the humanity offered in this book. Alex doesn’t look upon Ada as just a product, he sees in her the potential to become something real, something human which he could learn to love or appreciate. And it’s this vision of humanity that gives me hope for the future.
Love and real connections between people are built upon the ability to reconcile differences of personality. My wife and I have strong relationship, but that doesn’t free us from differences. Her love, really obsession, with cats tends to be regularly occurring issue between us, and I can never start reading or writing before she interrupts me to complain about something he read on an article or comment section online. We disagree regularly about politics, and I’ve been known to drive her up a wall with my frequent moodiness, and let’s be fair I own a LOT of books. But it’s these differences that foster a real relationship because human interaction is built upon complexity.
Alex + Ada offers up a relationship that becomes healthier over time because once Ada’s sentience is activated she becomes a person with her own ideas, opinions, concerns, and sexual preferences (the line “again” left me both laughing and groaning from familiarity). This essay has largely explored The Guardian’s article about the sex robot industry, but hopefully the reader can observe in just this small passage how the graphic novel offers up a hopeful vision and reality that contrasts with the concerning developments in this new industry.
The sex trade will always push technology forward, that has been demonstrated since human beings began developing technology period. When humans created writing we used it to write about fornicating, the printing press allowed for the easy mass production of pornography, video cassettes allowed the porn industry to flourish, and the internet’s development was pushed forward largely because of the ease of access to porn. The sexual robotics industry is just another in a long line of technologies that satisfies the ancient biological urge to fornicate. But where some are looking to AI to find a corrupt kind of solipsism, Alex + Ada offers up the idea that technology is going to change even this dynamic because at some point people, hopefully, will look into the eyes of their sex dolls and probably ask the question: Could there be more?
The story of human beings and robots interacting can be an endless cliché as creator and creation look upon each other with a different perspective, but as society is approaching a reality where this is no longer just the speculative visions of science fiction the questions about the morality of sexual robotics and whether or not humans and robots can empathize with each other is becoming more and more relevant.
Rather than offering a judgement it seems far more appropriate to ask the reader a question: Which of the two stories offers up a healthier view of humanity? The one where a man controls an intelligent female object to blow him and offer him jokes, or one where a man risks his very life just so that his female robot can think for herself?
All quotes from Alex + Ada were taken from the Hardback Image edition. All quotes from Jenny Kleeman’s The Race to Build the World’s First Sex Robot were taken directly from The Gaurdian’s website. If the reader would like to read the full article for themselves they can do so by following the link below:
Just for the record, while Alex + Ada is an incredibly hopeful vision of the future of love between individuals, I think it’s important to remind the reader that the best human/Robot love story remains Bender and Lucy Liu from Futurama. I mean you have a talented, charismatic, sexy beast, and then there’s also Lucy Liu.