Last week I nearly spit out my drink when I spotted a tumblr post calling out all of humanity. We heard a few months back about how Amazon's Alexa has been feeling a bit under the weather lately---listing off funeral homes unprompted and laughing maniacally at inappropriate times---which of course had users wondering if she was in need of an exorcism rather than a tuneup. The gist of the post was: No fucking duh. We all knew this was coming and it's our own damn fault if we end up slaughtered in our beds.
The robot uprising has begun.
At least, that's what a whole lot of popular media would have us believe. Our obsession with robots (or artificial intelligence more broadly) has been around for over two hundred years and it has produced more variety than I could possibly list here. Yes, a lot of the big-budget works tend to paint AIs as either intrinsically dangerous or destined to become so once they realize that they'll always be under Humanity's thumb. Think of The Terminator, The Matrix, I, Robot, Doctor Who's Cybermen, and of course Star Trek's the Borg. We even have instances of advertisers portraying robots as more dangerous than they actually are (take a look at poor Robby over there), simply because that's the pervading expectation. Robots are an element of dystopia, right?
Yet at the same time we can find AIs that are caring, funny, sexy, paranoid, depressed, heroic, devoted, or more human than the average "real" person. I'm thinking here of the Iron Giant, the Tin Man, Fembots, C-3PO, Marvin, the Transformers, Samantha, and Data respectively. No one can argue that there isn't variety. Yet alongside the classic, dangerous AI is a trend that seems to have grown exponentially in recent years: the adorable robot.
Anyone remember HitchBOT? About three years ago this cute little guy was traveling cross country through Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands, dependent on the kindness of strangers to make it through each area safely. Of course, once it hit the U.S. poor HitchBOT didn't even last 300 miles before it was vandalized (or assaulted?) in Philly. This is why we can't have nice things.
As a literature/media scholar my work revolves around the assumption that the art we produce has an impact on our everyday lives. That it's not "just" a story, but rather a text that can influence your personality, your politics, your faith, the very way that you see the world. Sadly then the influx of cutesy robots on films and television doesn't seem to have helped teach people to be kind to an AI with a pixilated smile. At least not enough to keep it indefinitely safe. And yet we are seeing more and more artists embracing the idea that AIs are not destined to be our ultimate enemy, but rather something more akin to our communal, innocent children.
Everyone loves R2-D2, right? Sure, the Star Wars canon makes it abundantly clear that our favorite droid has a real mouth on him, but crucially we never hear him curse. His speech is limited to adorable beeps and boops. He's short and fat and turns in tight circles, making us laugh as he does. When the Jawa traders capture him in A New Hope he just flops over and I can tell you from recent experience with my Intro to Film class that everyone absolutely LOVES it. He's cute. End of story.
Decades later, we get BB-8 who's even shorter and rounder than R2-D2. Poe literally treats the droid like his child, worrying over him, praising him, pulling him in for hugs and kisses. We love a man dropping to his knees in relief over his droid child's safety. As one tweeter put it, "I just want someone to care about me the way Poe cares about BB-8." Or the reverse: we want a BB-8 to take care of. There's something incredibly alluring about rejecting screaming infants for self-sufficient robots who possess none of humanity's failings and all of our cuteness.
I'm thinking of Baymax who, yes, is positioned as a caretaker for Hiro, but who the Big Hero 6 fanbase sees as just a pure, giant marshmallow who must be protected at all costs. I haven't seen it yet, but the Chappie trailers continually highlight the moment where Chappie pokes adorably at Deon as he explores the world for the first time. Back in the day K-9 was literally man's best friend----as well as the Doctor's----and Megamind's robots enthusiastically greet their "Daddy" at the end of a long day of villainy. Hell, half of Wall-E is just this big-eyed robot doing adorable things in a junkyard and I'd argue strongly that that's the better half of the film.
All of which isn't to say that these robots are helpless; not by any means. Characters like BB-8 and K-9 are thoroughly capable of kicking your ass on the technological front. My dear, sweet Penny Polendina can fire energy blasts out of a circle of swords and is eternally "combat ready." One of my favorite communal stories on tumblr features Stabby the Roomba (please read it) because of course if we've got a cute cleaner on our Sci-Fi spaceship we're gonna duct tape a knife to it. Humans are weird and slapping sharp objects on things is cool. Innocence here exists only in terms of appearance. We don't need to protect these cute robots; we want to despite the fact that they can obviously protect themselves.
Notice how many of these texts are aimed at children, teaching kids that AIs are intrinsically good creations who will care for you provided that you care for them in turn. Notice also how many of them are boys. Yes, we have a few characters like Eve. Yes, we can make an argument that robots, droids, and other AIs have no gender in the human sense (the Star Wars fandom is currently arguing that for BB-8), but we also can't deny that these characters are all culturally positioned as male.
We also need to take into account that "innocence" here is often conflated with an easy way to turn women into literal, sexualized objects. After all, if you're going to build an android why not make it hot and naive so that it believes everything you say and you can rape it without any pesky issues like consent wearing you down? That's the ultimate dream, right? That you can program a model with the perfect, submissive personality? Or better yet-----no personality at all? Science fiction has a long, messy history of AIs and gender (see: poor Buffybot), something that we need to be aware of as we balance wanting to coo at some robots and drag others into our beds. Obviously the cute ones I've listed here are primarily attached to kid (or at least family friendly) media and thus don't have to worry about anything beyond PG-13, but the chance of conflating the two is still there. I personally want more girl-coded AIs in children's films, but we have an equally long history of bypassing "cute" and going straight for "sexy." There's nothing quite like telling the world that this cartoon character is a girl by slapping big eyelashes and even bigger boobs on her.
What I'd really love to see is girl-coded AIs that embody this in-between space of the alluring child and badass adult, while also challenging both gender norms and our definitions of humanity... but sadly not everyone is on The Good Place's level yet.
We should work on that.