‘A.I. Artificial Intelligence’ and the Question of Robotic Love

Are machines really capable of feeling emotion? And what is love, really, anyway?
Ai Artificial Intelligence

What does it mean to be human? You’re probably rolling your eyes at that ridiculously abstract and oversimplified question, which is asked way too often. And it’s not really worth entertaining with a response, anyway, because how can you possibly get to the heart of something as vague as that? More interesting are the ways in which people approach the answer to such a grandiose and all-encompassing question. Some try to answer it through psychology. Some use biology. Some look to history. And Steven Spielberg, with his 2001 movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence, uses robots.

The plot entails a couple, Monica and Henry Swinton (Frances O’Connor and Sam Robards), adopting David (Haley Joel Osment), a human-like robot with the capability to love. Monica eventually programs David to love her, but then their biological son, Martin (Jake Thomas), tricks them into thinking David is a killing machine. Monica can’t bring herself to send David back to the lab, where he will be destroyed, so she abandons him in the woods to fend for himself. David then recalls Monica reading Pinnochio to him, and he subsequently embarks on an arduous journey to become a real boy in the hope that she will love him. 

At the core of A.I. are questions that are essentially more palatable versions of the one regarding what it means to be human. First, what is it exactly that stands between David and humanness? And if he spends the second half of A.I. attempting to attain humanness, what exactly is he hoping to find? In order to understand these questions of humanity, though, it is important to first understand what it means to be a robot. 

The principle of “artificial intelligence” is to program computers to do things that typically require human intelligence. While regular programming tends to “act” based on a specific array of pre-established data, artificial intelligence, or AI, has the ability to learn and evolve over time, and to make its own assessments of a situation. 

But AI isn’t really “intelligent” — at least, not in the same way that humans are. Their “reactions” to things aren’t really reactions based on any kind of emotion or introspection, but rather on coding and information that is hard-wired into their systems. So if you are chatting with a customer service bot, for example, the response you get from it will not be an emotional one; it’s a programmed attempt to resemble emotions but, in reality, does not look anything like them.

Such is the case with David. When Monica programs him to love her, what is first required of her is a sequence of words, like the coding sequence needed to create a command for any AI computer.

As robots become more and more advanced, people often wonder how close we are to creating machines that are essentially just… humans. The subject has burrowed its way into popular culture with movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Her (2013), and Ex-Machina (2014) exploring the nuances and the pleasures, perils, and possibilities of highly intelligent computers and robots mimicking us and taking part in our society. But as far as roboticists are concerned, robots will likely never be able to actually feel emotion. 

Angelica Lim discusses the possibility of robots experiencing love in a 2017 article for Greater Good Magazine:

“Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio defines emotion as ‘the expression of human flourishing or human distress, as they occur in the mind and the body.’ I have proposed that we define flourishing for a robot as a state of ‘all systems go’ or homeostasis, where the battery, motors, and other parts are in working order and the core temperature is normal.”

By Lim’s standards, it is impossible for robots to achieve so-called emotional flourishing, and it most likely always will be. The closest resemblance possible is a symbiosis of machine parts — in other words, a mere impersonation. So, according to science, David cannot truly feel love. What purpose, then, does an AI that can feign the emotion serve? By today’s measure, he is the holy grail of robotics, a machine that is indistinguishable from a human. Perhaps this type of robot can tell us more about what is important to us than about the particular qualities of the makeup of a human. 

The relationship between a human and a computer is, by definition, one-sided. In the past, philosophers have posited that all relationships are inherently selfish because what draws us to others is the way they see us, not a selfless love for that person. In his 1943 book Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, Jean-Paul Sartre coined the relevant term of “the look,” which essentially forces us to consider ourselves not as beings looking out into the world but rather as beings looked at by others. This bases the human experience purely on the existence of others. 

Understanding Sartre’s “look” might hold the key to understanding what it was that brought David into the world in the first place. Perhaps A.I. is not just a movie about a humanoid artificial intelligence yearning to be a real boy but is also about a look that Monica yearns for. She is introduced looking sorrowfully as her real child lies in suspended animation. Martin is sick and is not expected to get better. He is Monica’s only child, and so the potential loss of him is jarring. Indeed, nothing can quite replace a child’s totally dependent and unconditional love.

When David first comes to live with Monica and Henry, she feels ambivalent toward him, maybe even afraid and disconcerted by his uncanny presence. But there is one clear, definable moment at which Monica begins to accept and even have a sense of love for David, and that is when she programs him to “love” her, and he calls her “Mommy” for the first time. Notably, Monica comes to love David, not because he has done something kind, or smart, or silly, but because of the way he feels about her. 

What Monica experiences at that moment is the same force that drives our need for AI to resemble humans, even when they exist purely for purposes of education or labor. There is no imperative reason Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri should resemble nuanced, female voices that enjoy speaking with us. And yet, they do, because this “look” that we desire locks us into buying products with such human-like attributes. 

Perhaps more telling, though, is the fact that Monica’s approval is what drives David through the second half of the film. He strives to find something that will turn him into a “real boy,” because loving her is not enough. He also needs that love to be returned. 

So, what does it mean to be human? It is very likely that that question will never be answered. But coding a robot to resemble love might very well teach us that our scientific conception of love isn’t quite as straightforward and selfless as our societal conception of it.

Aurora Amidon: Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.