Mechanical Love

I saw a fascinating, wonderfully made documentary film this weekend at the L.A. Film Festival. Called Mechanical Love, this film is directed by Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo and examines the interrelationship between robots and humans.

A lot of the film takes place in Japan, where most robots are researched and developed. A main character in the film is Hiroshi Ishiguro, a Japanese professor trying to build a robot that looks just like him. His research concerns are less about making a functional robot as with creating a “substitute human” who can fulfill the social and emotional needs of an interpersonal dynamic. His robot (which does look creepily like him) can talk and move, but only as an extension of himself—controlled remotely by Ishiguro at a computer. He dreams of the day when robots can live and work on our behalf—like a clone, providing the illusion of our presence even when we are absent.

But are we really, seriously thinking something mechanical could ever compensate for a human touch, a human love? The people in this documentary seem to think so. Some of the most compelling scenes in the film focus on how “therapeutic robots” can be used in places like nursing homes to provide companionship to the lonely elderly. Frau Körner, a nursing home resident in Germany, owns a pet Paro, a Japanese-made mechanical baby seal. She quickly comes to love this robo-pet, which responds to voices and touch. Frau Körner has few human friends in the nursing home and her family rarely visits her, so naturally she is thrilled to have this “pet” to love and be loved by.

Mechanical Love is a hilarious film (and who else but Jack Black was in the audience with me, laughing away), but it’s also quite creepy and profoundly sad. Is this where we are as a human civilization—that we are so sick of each other that we’d prefer mechanical love?

It strikes me as interesting that this very weekend, the biggest movie in the country was also about mechanical love: Wall E. Here’s another film that takes a future of sentient artificial intelligence for granted. Is there something in our collective consciousness that is just tiring of human interaction so much that robots (loving each other, loving us, and saving everyone from their own self-induced apocalypse) are becoming our only hope?

Perhaps this is just an outgrowth of the ongoing android trend in culture: humans becoming more machine-like and vice versa. Our technologies have always been extensions of our person, but never more so than now (am I really “me” without my computer? Without my cell phone?). Just look at what I’m doing now: expressing myself via a blog. I could be talking to you (well, maybe) in person, being truly present, sharing my opinions. But it feels just as appropriate (or more appropriate) to do it remotely, using a technological intermediary to evoke my sonzai-kan (the Japanese word that Ishiguro uses to describe the uncanny sense of presence he hopes his robot-clone will provide to those it interacts with). Maybe one day I can be digitally or robotically as real as I am humanly. There are already times when it feels that way.