Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Perfect Woman, Perfect Satire

There is a web site claiming to represent a company called AI Robotics and announcing a product called Perfect Woman. It's a hoax. It is very well done but certainly a hoax. I'll eat a dozen long-stem roses if I'm wrong.

Being a hoax isn't what is interesting about the site. What is interesting is that the site's content completely nails the male expectations and insecurities that expose themselves elsewhere but rarely get the critique they deserve. A quick look at male science fiction fantasies about fembots, exotic alien women and machines like the Orgazmatron in Woody Allen's movie, Sleeper, points to the desires men have that they fear women will not fill for them. Science fiction and fantasy literature are great at moving mundane ideas into a context where they are enlarged and easier to see. The down side of this is that in the fantastic context the audience's distance from the narrative makes the ideas easier to dismiss.

That same distance and exaggeration makes it hard to tell the fantasies themselves from satire.

In the Buffy episode, I was Made To Love You, Warren is found to have made himself a robot for a girlfriend and named her April. Unlike most human women April's devotion to Warren is entirely unconditional. She blames herself for everything and Warren for nothing. She likes whatever he likes, including any and all sexual practices he is interested in. She can not cry.

In this case we know the men and women behind Buffy The Vampire Slayer are using Warren to critique the desire of some men to use and dehumanize women. We know this because characters in the show who are known to have a functioning moral compass express their disapproval. April also "dies" very sympathetically on screen, longing for, but unable to cry for, Warren who abandoned her for a human, Katrina.

In other cases it is not so clear. In the Ghost/Batgirl comic book story, The Resurrection Machine (AKA The Resurrection Engine), the villains zombify recently dead women and use them as pliant sex workers in an underground nightclub. In the end the villains are brought down by the heroes for corruption and profiting from these women's deaths. Nothing much is said about what it means that they were able to make money selling the services of women who were not alive enough to have any will, much less consent to what they were doing. I was left with the feeling that the writer, Mike Kennedy, was just looking for shock value, not commenting on anything.

The Perfect Woman site purports to offer something similar. Like April she only exists to serve and please her master. Like the women in The Resurrection Engine she is warmly human but without a will. These women can not judge so they can not reject. They have no needs. In fact, under the "Next" link by "Interview With The Founders" on this page at Perfect Woman it says "We have designed Lisa to be a true companion. She is there to serve you. She dresses herself and recharges herself automatically."

Another quote from the same page.

"Lisa can cook you a meal based on what is in the fridge (visual recognition). She can go shopping, do household work or give you a hydraulic massage, but she can also play chess and video games (over 390 are available) and even learn to do certain sports."

And then there are the token nods intelligence.

"Lisa can also have a real conversation with you, thanks to a database that is updated daily. She integrates new parameters into her replies and is thus able to react to new evolutions and trends."

"You can talk to her about news, travelling, culture and music. Lisa has an IQ of 130."

Why 130? This is a clue to Perfect Woman being a hoax. Applying a human IQ value to an artificial intelligence is highly questionable. [1][2][3] But what else does it mean?

One pattern I have noticed in science fiction is that a female character's presence in a story is justified by them being, for example, a brilliant scientist. Then, as the story goes on, they are really just a love interest (print) or eye candy (the screen) and their characters never develop any personality. Trillian in The Hitchhikers' Guide To The Galaxy is a prime example. Some of The Doctor's female companions in Dr. Who are also supposed to be quite bright and educated but end up saying "what is it, Doctor?" over and over, just like the others.

I'm convinced that this happens because both the writers and the audience want their conscience soothed over the patriarchal nature of the story being told. If she is intelligent she's not being objectified, the reasoning goes.

Does an IQ of 130 make the Perfect Woman more than an object? No, it makes the point that a robot like her, or like April, really is what some men want. When, not if, a machine nearly this lifelike becomes commercially viable she can be sold using the same techniques and justifications as a bad science fiction property.

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