by Tyler Pierce, English and CDAE/Public Communication major at the University of Vermont.
Back in 1982, the film industry was blessed with Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a groundbreaking science fiction film whose influence would ripple throughout the constructs of technological and cultural innovation for years to come. This film changed the pace of cultural advancement and begged the ethical questions so central to romantic literature, what is the meaning of life? What makes one sentient? A question that was typically explored by 17th and 18th century thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, René Descartes and Jean Jacques Rousseau. What made this commentary so inventive and fresh were the contemporary and futuristic ethical issues it aimed to tackle. “This 1980’s science fiction thriller takes a look at the philosophical arguments regarding genetic engineering and its social implications. The film portrays a dystopian Los Angeles in 2019: a time in which the development of human genetic engineering had reached its peak, and clones called “replicants” are created and virtually indistinguishable from other humans” (UTM). More recently, Blade Runner 2049 released this year was also a cinematic masterpiece that builded upon the technological advancements laid out in its predecessor. While big Hollywood movies have taken new and diverse approaches toward Artificial Intelligence to higher levels compared to the state of technology during the time of their release, there are many that successful films utilize the basic concept to comment or predict future uses. Most importantly? They explore romantic relationships, and more importantly, the devolution regarding the authenticity of romance and intimacy in our evolving world.
Studies have shown that romantic relationships formed online have been proven stronger, as people feel more comfortable disclosing information, in the future this divide between internet and face to face romantic interaction may become seamless. It is important to understand “The very premise of AI technology is its ability to continually learn from the data it collects. The more data there is to collect and analyze through carefully crafted algorithms, the better the machine becomes at making predictions” (Shani, Adgoritihims). Apps like Tinder and Eharmony learn from the information they collect to place people together. We may not be too far away that one of the involved parties may be artificially created themselves. Films like Ex Machina (2015), Chappie (2015), Her (2013), and most recently Blade Runner 2049 (2017) all include instances of humans and machines fraternizing and becoming involved in romantic relationships. An article from the Institute, an IEEE news source, argues that these forms of relationships will become reality in years to come, but their validity will surely remain in question. As the famous philosopher Rene Descartes once declared “I think therefore I am.” That being said, “even if a non-deterministic hybrid machine-learning technique is invented in the future, it ultimately still comes down to the algorithm’s selection. In other words, a robot can never truly think and therefore never truly love” (Rozenfield). Despite the fact machines lack the capacity to love, humans do not, as we see Joaquin Phoenix’s character fall deeply in love with an operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). While he didn’t design her features and qualities himself, he found himself infatuated with “Her”, and shared similar encounters to that of Ryan Gosling in the new movie Blade Runner 2049.
Blade Runner 2049 explores this notion of romantic relationships with non-human entities to an extreme extent. Officer K, a Blade Runner (law enforcement tasked with identifying rouge replicants) lives in a high rise apartment with his holographic wife. At first we believe she is just a voice, much like the operating system in Her, but instead she is a seamlessly perfect hologram of which is initially projected from the ceiling. The artificially intelligent romantic interest of the protagonist is not only perceptive but learns from her experiences, K rewards her with an animator stick so that she can see the world that she has always longed for. To be sentient is the ability to perceive or feel things, while she and the operating system in Her are have been created to embody this characteristic, yet, they are not and can never truly be sentient beings. The parallel that I found the most interesting between these two movies were the depictions of these electronically created entities interfering with physical human to human intimacy. In Her, a Russian woman acts as a surrogate for the operating system and initiates a real-world sexual encounter of which the protagonist shuts down as he feels that their connection isn’t genuine. In Blade Runner 2049, Officer K meets a girl who asks “you don’t like real girls?” (Blade Runner 2049) eventually they go to her apartment and he turns on his animator stick (artificial girlfriend), she virtually morphs into the real girl allowing Gosling to believe is actually having an intimate experience with a hologram. These scenes are so closely related that relationships like this may actually exist in the future, and if these predictions are true they could alter the social atmosphere of our 21st century world in dramatic ways.