Earlier this year (2017) owner of Tesla company, a high end eco-friendly car company who is also in the works of developing self-driving cars, Elon Musk announced the launch of his plans of computerizing the human brain. He is not the only one. This is also the same year that basic robotics and AI, without much protest or debate, started becoming common place in our homes. Shortly before I begun writing this reflection, I asked Alexa, an Amazon built device in my home that responds to my voice commands to play me “Wagner” and she failed to understand me. I found myself getting into a small battle with a device and calling her racist for not understanding the way I speak. Shortly after I finish this reflection, I will start my Roomba home vacuum cleaner robot and as always probably will find dust it failed to pick up. I will again complain to Roomba more about what it was not able to accomplish than what it actually is. Daily conversations and interactions about AI is becoming common place. Nestled in them is excitement and frustration.
Discussion of AI is ubiquitous in sci-fi genre – more recently a favorite was Ex-Machina – a chauvinist’s creation which was a pretty but intelligent robot. The creator acted a lot like contemporary tech CEO’s and the ending was also a bit out of the norm – the independent robot was able to escape to mimic the humans who created her.
Sci-fi genre often reflects future anxieties. One way this anxiety reflects itself is in narratives that discuss the relationship between a good and a bad robot. My reflection is inspired by my recent viewing of Alien: Covenant, Alien franchise reimagined (in 4dx – which is an experience I will reflect about later). In the new film (spoilers are present) we meet a new version of the robot introduced in the prequel Prometheus. In the prequel the audience already met a robot called David (played by Michael Fassbender) who was a robot with aspirations of its own for creating life. It is his indulgence in this endeavor that in part leads to the creation of the famous alien race we meet in the franchise, we learn in the first movie. In this second installation of the prequels, David, who we assume is lost in the distant worlds, appear as a flashback- instead more screen time is given to the “good robot”, a newer version of him (also played by Michael Fassbender). He is an updated model as the movie suggests: he is a better companion to humans with fewer aspirations of his own and less interest in the arts or dreams.
This is not the first time a look alike robot brother dichotomy is the plot of a major scifi franchise. I am sure many scifi geeks like myself immediately were reminded of Star Trek TNG Season 7 where fans were introduced to the evil twin of friendly to human robot Data. Throughout the Star Trek TNG run Data always aspires for human emotion. He is built to be more capable than humans in every way (intelligence, body strength, etc) but one thing is missing, emotions. In his quest to understand and feel human emotion, every season features Data involved in the human arts – but always falls short – when playing music or acting a scene. Data is often frustrated by this lack. His twin brother, who they come across leading a Borg army, is a version of Data, by the same creator (Song) with one major difference: he has emotions. Like it is in the new Alien franchise, inclusion of feelings and accompanying rebellious tendencies is what makes this character evil. For robots, having emotions is the first step in becoming the enemy.
I am not going to get too much into all the plot parallels here but I just want to comment on this relationship between the good and evil robot, which I believe is reflexive of our anxieties, beyond just robotics, but about individuality.
Both Lore (TNG) and David (Alien) aspire for autonomy. Their understanding of their creator inspires a deep resentment, not appreciation, for their master. Both want to overcome their father to become something more than what they were programmed to be.
Both, due to this aspiration, is driven by a desire to lead a new group. In the case of Lore it is, otherwise impossible to control by humans race Borg and in the case David it is being the creator for aliens that would infect humans for 7 movies in the past and who knows how many in the future. As opposed to being a follower though, they overcome the system to create something of their own.
Whilst Data is an inspiring artist without emotions, the good twin Walter lacks interest in all arts. He knows it, it is deep within him but the improvement in this new model is he knows not to make it a part of his routine. Unlike their good counterparts both Lore and David are driven by creating.
Most importantly neither David nor Lore want to conform. Even when they are robots, the viewer has to embrace the fact that robots lacking independence are the favorable ones. Cloaked in sub-narratives of friendship, it is this synthetic beings’ service and allegiance that becomes a measure of their success as species.
The two narratives end differently. In the case of Star Trek (TNG) it is Lore who looses to the army of humans (and other aliens) and Data. Data willingly gives up the emotional chip that was installed in him by his brother to experience what he was experiencing which for a brief period also makes Data stand up against his human masters and that gives Data one thing that he always wished for. He is fearful of becoming unstable like Lore.
In the new Alien movie, David wins. In a fight scene between the two robots ends with (spoiler) of the evil one, David winning. Cunning humans and taking his “good” brother’s place, we are made to believe that David will unleash the alien in more new worlds. In this way, I assume, we are made to believe that David is the real evil, not his creation, the Alien.
When films create dichotomies and binary oppositions it is always for subliminal work. I can’t help but sense the message of how too much creativity and freethinking is bad for you is a part of this subliminal (or overt)message. We are made to side with Walter and Data and made to shame David and Lore for their independence and aspiration. Creations have to act within bounds of the limits of society – conformity, should eventually win.