In the popular imagination, robots are seen in four key ways. One, they are eliminating human labor-power from as many jobs as possible. Two, they are providing sex to humans, particularly men, lonely men. Three, they are domestic servants. Four, they are in an apocalyptic war with their masters. The last provided the final revelation in HBO's Westworld, a show that also, like Blade Runner, had "standard pleasure models." As for The Jetsons' Rosey the Robot, she was at once a classic eliminator of human jobs (the kind of robots we are most familiar with in our times) and provided domestic services.
Maria Arlamovsky's Robolove, a documentary that's a part of the film section in this year's ByDesign Festival, explores a robot that's not sinister, fucking humans, or making humans economically redundant. This kind of robot is like an emotional support animal; it offers comfort to those who feel alienated or stressed or lonely.
The emotional support robot also offers an artificial afterlife to its master. This is made possible by the humanization process. Increased sensitivity is not a one-way street. What goes out can also come in. What is real is emotional and what is emotional is real. This means you can transfer your feelings, the concentration of which we call a personality, into a robot. And when you die, the robot will be the closest thing there is to you. (This subject, with all of its complexities and dangers, was also explored in Black Mirror's "Be Right Back," which starred Ex Machina's Domhnall Gleeson.)
In Robolove—which is really an unfortunate title for this excellent and moody documentary, as it has very little to do with "making love" to machines—the relationship between immortality and designing real feeling artificial emotions is closely connected. And so at one end, we have people who want to live forever, who see robots as the best shot we have at life after death; and, on the other, people who just need someone (human or not) to be there for them, to make life in a society that emphasizes individualism less cold and alienating. (All of the people interviewed in this documentary are from the most advanced capitalist societies.)
But robot immortality will ultimately end up being the same as the immortality we find in, say, Moby-Dick. Its author is long dead, but his words are activated by readers. Herman Melville wrote the novel, but he is not in the novel, he is not its subject. Only the living can make him immortal. The same goes with a robot that is in every way your personality (a concentration of your voice, way of speaking, memories). It is only so to those who are alive. It can never be you to you. Why? Because being is in essence a point in the world and time that can only ever be occupied by you. The moment you undo this point, you are even less than a ghost. You are gone for good.
ByDesign 2022 presents Robolove this Saturday, March 18, at 7:30 at Northwest Film Forum. Find other suggested events by The Stranger right here.