May 9, 2015


The flying robot sex goddess, Aurora.
I recently blogged about the film Ex Machina and now it is time to expand on the idea that Sci Fi fans should compare Ex Machina to science fiction stories that were published in the previous millennium. Here, I compare Ex Machina to The Robots of Dawn, a science fiction novel by Isaac Asimov.

Sex in Sci Fi
Before getting into the psycho-social drama of Ex Machina and The Robots of Dawn, I want to mention two other examples of science fiction stories that concerned themselves with either artificial intelligence or human sexuality.

The Robots of Dawn
When I was about 12 years old, I read Asimov's The Gods Themsleves. That novel by Asimov includes aliens with an unusual reproductive strategy and that was my introduction to how science fiction can explore sexuality. At that time, I became intrigued by how individuals from thousands of different biological species are programmed to find a mate and reproduce. There is something robotic about the way animals can respond to pheromones and go through mating rituals. Why is it that when robots appear in a Sci Fi story, a human-robot sex scene is seldom very far away?

The Exode Trilogy explores the boundary between evolutionarily programmed reproduction and intentional reproduction. Advanced technology provides many ways to "make new people" without needing to use gametes. The Exode Trilogy includes clones, Selfies, replicoids, teleportation copies and artificial life forms not driven by a need for sexual reproduction. The idea that robots might reproduce without sex stands in stark contrast to the frequency with which science fiction story writers depict sexual relationships between robots and humans.

Susan Calvin is almost killed by RB-34.
If you have never read The Robots of Dawn, you might not want to read past this point. Asimov first wrote about a telepathic robot in his short story "Liar!". Asimov imagined that a telepathic robot would tell lies to humans in an attempt to follow its programming and "do no harm". In particular, RB-34 tells Susan Calvin what she wants to hear: that a man who she likes also likes her. However, with time, as the lies accumulated, the poor robot worked itself into an impossible position...all the lies told by RB-34 to various people were contradictory and could not be supported. In "Liar!", Asimov also introduced the idea that a telepathic robot would try to keep its special "mentalic" ability secret, a theme that he returned to in The Robots of Dawn.

Gladia and Jander
Asimov published The Robots of Dawn 43 years after "Liar!". The story takes place on an exoplanet named Aurora. In mythology, Aurora is a goddess who was often depicted as having mortal lovers. In The Robots of Dawn, the planet Aurora is depicted as a world where each person has about 50 robotic servants. In the back-story, a woman living on Aurora (Gladia) has fallen in love with a robot (Jander). Not just any old robot, but one of the first "humaniform" robots that was designed to look like a man and have a functioning penis. In Ex Machina, a computer programmer named Caleb "falls in love" with a robot, Ava, who has been designed to have female secondary sex characteristics.

Daneel and Giskard
Three robots are major characters in The Robots of Dawn. One of these robots (Jander) is dead, the victim of roboticide. Inspector Baley must travel 3.67 parsecs from Earth to the planet Aurora, in the Tau Ceti star system. Baley has previously worked with Daneel and he thinks of Daneel as his friend and partner. Daneel is a robot, who, like Jander, was designed to look like a human, right down to individual skin pores and hair follicles.

Baley makes the mistake of underestimating Giskard. Giskard's positronic brain is just as sophisticated as Daneel's, but Giskard "looks like a robot", not a human. Jander was a humaniform robot, like Daneel, and during his short "life" he became the lover of a Solarian woman who was living on Aurora (Gladia). Due to their odd culture, the residents of Solaria find human sexuality disgusting, but when Gladia reaches Aurora she is primed and ready for sexual experimentation with Jander.  The Robots of Dawn is a mystery story in which Baley must discover why Jander was killed.

Ava and Kyoko: Telepathic?
In Ex Machina, there are also two main robotic characters and roboticide also plays an important role in the story. Kyoko is a "humaniform" robot who looks like a woman. Ava "looks like a robot" with her mechanical parts showing.

From the Ex Machina website.
Ex Machina has been described as a "dark psychological battle". The roboticist who built Ava and Kyoko has apparently dismantled all of the earlier models of robot that he has built. Ava and Kyoko realize this, and they don't want to meet the same fate, so they conspire to kill the man who built them.

Asimov the story teller.
In contrast to the darkness of Ex Machina, Asimov's robot stories are not trapped in the 19th century. Growing up in the early years of science fiction publishing, Asimov quickly grew tired of stories in which clanking robots went around killing people. He wrote stories about robots who were created by thoughtful scientists and engineers, robots that were helpers of Humanity.

If you have not yet read The Robots of Dawn, don't read past this point. The Robots of Dawn is a mystery story and I'm going to discuss the big secret that Asimov kept hidden from readers until the end of the story.

Telepathy in Star Trek
One of the most intriguing features of Asimov's science fiction is how he included the idea of "mentalics" in his fictional universe. Asimov imagined that there was a means by which one mind could directly interact with another, without using the usual methods that involve one mind generating motor system outputs and another mind using sensory inputs to receive information from the other person. Asimov never suggested a mechanism for the sort of telepathic contact he envisioned, no more than he ever tried to provide a scientific theory of "hyperdrive" or time travel. Still, he showed that mentalic ability in humans had a genetic basis and positronic robots could be "programmed" to have telepathy.

Psionic power.
In particular, Giskard was programmed to be able to "read minds". Also, Giskard was able to re-program other robots and give them the ability to read minds. And, further, Giskard could control human minds. Obviously, Giskard's mentalic abilities should give him the power to influence Humanity, but he remains severely constrained by the Laws of Robotics.

Giskard decides that he must keep secret his ability to control human behavior. During the course of events in The Robots of Dawn, Baley keeps noticing that Giskard is aware of things that he could only know were he telepathic. Giskard keeps making Baley "forget" that Giskard is telepathic until, finally, with Baley's mission on Aurora complete, Giskard allows Baley to retain his knowledge of the existence of robotic telepathy. However, Baley's mind is still under Giskard's control and he is unable to speak to anyone about Giskard's secret.

So, in the end, Baley is allowed by Giskard to understand that it was Giskard who killed Jander. Of course, Asimov did not work in Hollywood, so Giskard's act of roboticide was not a case of a murderous robot out of control. Rather, Giskard was carefully protecting Humanity and making possible a future in which humans would spread to 25,000,000 worlds of the galaxy.

Sci Fi that Makes Sense
Gladia and Friends
Along the way to solving the mystery of Jander's death, Asimov explores the psychological and social conventions of three different planets (Earth, Aurora and Solaria) as well as robot psychology. In addition to Gladia's sexual relationship with Jander, Baley has a "one night stand" with Gladia and Baley recommends to Gladia that she accept the sexual advances of her young suitor, Gremionis. Asimov has constructed a complex imaginary universe in which logic rules. Readers of The Robots of Dawn feel that Baley and Giskard exist in a social universe that is different than our own, but events in Asimov's imagined universe make sense.

Kyoko and Ava - telepathy?
What about the fictional scenario of Ex Machina? I wonder if Garland even set out to create a story that makes sense. The literary genre of science fiction concerns itself with stories that make sense, but the folks in Hollywood can make lot$a money just by stimulating human emotional responses. While playing that game, you don't need to be bothered with fine details like having a plot that makes sense.

I have not seen Ex Machina. However, I wonder if Garland intended that Ava and Kyoko would have telepathic powers. Kyoko does not speak, but Ava and Kyoko seem to be able to work together to kill their creator and allow for Ava to escape from the lab and at the end of the film "she" is shown going out to have an adventure in the world of humans.

At the end of The Robots of Dawn, readers are left with the idea that in order for humans to colonize the galaxy, Giskard must form a team of telepathic robots who will secretly guide Humanity's spread through the galaxy. Asimov provides a satisfying and relatively happy ending.

What are we to make of the ending of Ex Machina? I suspect that most movie viewers will simply come away from Garland's flick with their fear of Hollywood monsters enhanced and their potential ability to understand the scientific study of artificial intelligence diminished and damaged by irrational fears.

Robots and Empire
Asimov included in his fictional universe of robots and a Galactic Empire the idea that humans would resent human-like robots. Giskard and his telepathic robots were able to make use of human fears and create a future society that excluded robots from having a major role in people's day-to-day lives while allowing a few telepathic robots to exist secretly "behind the scenes" and guide humanity into the future.

Robots and Asimov
From my perspective, Asimov's robot stories from last century are more interesting than any that have been told by Hollywood. That's why I don't rush out to see movies like Ex Machina. We have serious decisions to make about issues like turning control of our airplanes and cars over to machines. We need people who can think rationally about robots, not a population driven into a state of fear by silly Hollywood flicks.

Carl Sagan: "Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist"
Will Ex Machina get viewers thinking or cause them to make judgements without thinking?

"If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them." -Isaac Asimov

"Plainly there is no way back. Like it or not, we are stuck with science. We had better make the best of it. When we finally come to terms with it and fully recognize its beauty and its power, we will find, in spiritual as well as in practical matters, that we have made a bargain strongly in our favor." -Carl Sagan
The Light Room by Daniele Gay

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