Artificial intelligence in Blade Runner 2049

I’ve been thinking a lot about AI lately, probably because someone pointed me at Janelle Monae’s Metropolis-themed albums. You may remember I did a whole blogpost in response to Ex Machina, comparing it to Metropolis. The latter movie is a fascinating piece of cultural history to me, as a woman and a speculative fiction author, so no doubt it will come up again. (You may also check out this post comparing depiction of AI.)

One of the things that fascinates me about the trope of a built artificial intelligence is the reasons that the creators (in narrative and of the narrative) code specific AIs as feminine. The feminine AI is, typically, a source of comfort, comfort that generally involves sex work but may not always. We see this very clearly in Metropolis, where the scientist creates a robot in the image of a woman he desires, and in Ex Machina, where the scientist creates multiple women, often voiceless, purely for the purposes of sex and a stunted type of companionship (though he rationalizes his inventions as more than that). But this narrative choice is simultaneously most poignant and most disturbing in the more recent Blade Runner 2049.

I posted about this movie when it came out, and I loved it. But I didn’t get into my exact emotional responses to the relationship between Joi and K because there was so much going on with the movie. K believes that he loves Joi, and Joi believes (as much as she can believe, which is left up to the viewer) that she loves K. But in the end, Joi is created to believe that she loves K. She is created to serve him. Can love that is not chosen be love?

What is fascinating to me about Joi’s character is how she is built to fulfill the idea of what a woman is. Unlike the replicants, who are largely shown behaving with clear autonomy and are able to affect change in the narrative, Joi is utterly loyal – and utterly powerless. In no scene is this more apparent than when K crashlands in the junkyard. Joi, experiencing a system error, is trying to wake him up, trying to help him in whatever way she can. But she cannot help him. She cannot even help herself.

Joi

Joi needs another woman to be able to even touch K in the way that she wants to. She needs a flesh-and-blood woman’s active participation to be intimate with K, and it is debatable how much control of that interaction she has, forced to sync each of her motions with Mariette’s own to maintain what is, in the end, an illusion. Whatever Joi feels, however she has been allowed to be an individual in her motivations and emotions, she is functionally without agency. Her existence is even more pitiful than K’s. At least he can kill those who hurt him. Joi can only be erased.

What is so powerful for me about the narrative role that Joi plays is that she does seem to care. In an article on Animation World Network, VFX supervisor Richard Hoover says this about the junkyard scene: “It was important to depict her attachment to K as her systems were failing. She tries to save K, but she can’t touch him or pull him from the wreckage. It was an emotional scene.” I respectfully disagree. It wasn’t just an emotional scene.

It was a horror movie.

There’s a popular concept in feminist critique called “fridging”. As defined, “‘Fridging’ (Short for ‘Women in Refrigerators’) Refers to an act where the villain kills, maims, depowers, or rapes someone close to the hero in order to break the hero’s spirit and attempt to make the hero chase him.” It surprised me not at all when Joi met her fate later in the movie. Joi was an idea of what women are, from the beginning. She was an idea of a housewife, of a companion, of a lover. She was, in the end, none of those things. She was a lie that K was told, that he let himself be told, by systems of power.

And that is what is so interesting, for me, about Joi’s character. Joi is a lie told about what women are, or perhaps about what it is desirable for women to be. But in the end, her vulnerable and truly self-less nature causes K nothing but pain. Just as systems of patriarchy often do not benefit individual men when enforced upon partners they rely on, K is not benefited by the lie of Joi’s character. He becomes dependent, and, later, lost. The lynchpin of his life was, after all, so easily twisted and stolen.

Unlike many viewers, I don’t think that Joi lacked feelings. I think that Joi was so stripped of agency as to have those feelings be fundamentally meaningless or harmful. And this reading is the horror movie, for me, because it is the horror of the narrative of womanhood that we are told, day after day. Powerlessness corrupts, and in Joi’s case, powerlessness erases.


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Depictions of AI

Hey, friends. This weekend is Roanoke Author Invasion! I’m bringing a bunch of books and oddments, so I hope to see you there! I promise to take more pictures this time and post them for you next week, but until then please enjoy this discussion of robots and artificial intelligence.

A few weeks ago I finished Lightless  by C.A. Higgins. It was a masterful book that depended uniquely on interpersonal conflict. Yes, there were explosive moments, but most of the tension was constructed through dialogue and interactions between characters. I definitely recommend this book if you’re interested in reading a good example of solid character-driven plot. I don’t want to spoil anything for you if you haven’t read this book, so my recommendation would be to go read it and come back at this point. We also might see spoilers for a few other books and movies going forward, specifically Ian McDonald’s River of Gods, but I will warn you ahead of time.

Still here? Good.

lightless

One of the characters in Lightless was actually a computer. Ananke was originally not sentient, but gains sentience over the course of the book due to some unfortunate or fortunate events. The depiction of Ananke and her decision-making processes was probably my favorite part of this story. Althea, whom she views as something like her mother, grows to simultaneously love, fear, and hate Ananke – understandable when you essentially have a five year-old-who is devoted to you but has the power to asphyxiate you if you piss her off. I always find meditations on the psychology of an artificial intelligence interesting and I wanted to compare and contrast some other, very differing examples of AI from some recent stories I’ve come across.

One of the oldest versions of an AI story that I’ve found is that of the German silent film Metropolis. You may remember me mentioning this movie in my post on Feminine horror and Ex Machina. In that post I focused more on feminist critique, but we’re going to sidestep the gender issue for a minute (I know, shocking) and just look at the construction of an artificial intelligence in the context of the plot for this movie. The AI in Metropolis is clearly a servant of the devil, possibly being the embodiment of that spirit. Its goal is, simply, to destroy mankind and the works that he has built (“he” being used here because, in the world of Metropolis, there don’t seem to be a lot of women building things – product of its time I suppose). Thus, we see an early depiction of AI as something unnatural and to be feared.

In a more recent iteration of AI, we can look at Ex Machina. Again, see my feminist critique of this movie above. In this iteration of an AI, we see something that is still alien and inhuman. It is not necessarily an ethical creation either. Yet there is some attempt to give this AI reasonable motives for harming others – specifically self-preservation. That said, AI are still not presented as equal to human beings per se, or rather, both humans and AI are evil and twisted in different ways. It remains a pretty dark view of AI, if more nuanced.

Yet a third example of AI can be found in River of Gods by Ian McDonald. (SPOILERS)

river-of-gods

In this story, there are various types of artificial intelligence that have evolved from computer programs. They do not need bodies, since they can download and replicate their programming infinitely in the world of data. The one AI that does seek to grasp at humanity or something like it does so in order to better understand humankind. I’ll leave her unnamed in order to hopefully shield you from being too keyed to what happens in the book. (Spoilers, spoilers, spoilers, look away now.) This AI is brutally murdered, at last understanding the desperation of humanity all too well. She is represented as nearly saintly, sacrificing herself for the good of her kind and humanity. I have to be honest, this book made me enraged – not so much at our decisions as human beings, but at the rules that entrap our corporal selves. In this case, AI is imagined as an evolution towards something more inherently free and everlasting than humanity. It’s a stark contrast against the demonic robot of Metropolis and the very impermanent Ava.

I would argue that Ananke from Lightless most closely resembles Ava as something that is alien and makes decisions with a logic that is not human. Ananke, however, has managed to include emotions that are not logical in her personality – anger comes to mind. Love, or something like it, is another emotion that she consistently expresses. She is a somewhat unique take on AI in that the implication is that those emotions, such as they are, are real in her. Her development is presented almost as that of a child. In that respect, she may more closely resemble the AI in River of Gods who goes among humans. I particularly like this representation, as it seems very believable to me. It makes sense that an AI would take time to come into itself, and that it might want to model itself off of the other beings around it – specifically, people.

There are numerous other depictions of AI in all different stripes out there, and it is always fascinating to see a new take. Do you have a favorite?