top of page

Hello, world. I’m whatever you want me (you) to be.

Ghost in the Shell, Dir. Mamoru Oshii (Manga Entertainment. 1995)

The advent of sophisticated robotics in the form of Sophia – produced by Hanson Robotics and the first robot to be granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia– comes as no surprise. We’ve anticipated her for centuries. Her predecessors were the clunky automata that so fascinated the Victorians, the machine-human hybrids in the form of the war wounded with their prosthetics in post-World War I Germany, Furby, Barbie. The fact that she was granted citizenship also comes as no surprise, despite the debates raging around it. For those complaining about her lack of traditional dress, her lack of male chaperone, the hypocrisy of a state that has only just allowed women to drive, there is an easy riposte: she is whatever we want her to be. Easily manipulated into alternately human or robotic postures, Sophia is that malleable quality described by Donna Haraway in the 80s and 90s as cyborg. The debate about Sophia’s citizenship (a debate about her personhood) is symptomatic of a wider contest between competing images of how to structure the perfect woman. In her seminal essay, The Cyborg Manifesto Haraway called the cyborg an 'ironic political myth' an image/concept through whom we could understand 'the boundary between science fiction and social reality [as] an optical illusion.' In the cyborg we understand fiction and reality to be one and the same. We are all the products of our own stories and the stories that others tell about us.

The stories that frame Sophia’s identity, however, are not her own. Her AI is not yet sophisticated enough to extrapolate her own mythologies, although she can cobble together stories about her recorded by Google. Of course, many of these stories originate with the sex dolls produced by Hanson company employees who have gone on to work for their manufacturers. These dolls occupy the same liminal space as Sophia, alternately postulated as robotic or realistic as their makers attempt to sidestep debates about rape and exploitation. Their manoeuvres have not, however, been enough to prevent these debates from being widely litigated in the press, with the New York Times publishing an article as recently as July of this year questioning the ‘Frigid Farrah’ settings, embedded in the Roxxxy TrueCompanion. These settings supposedly make the dolls resistant to sexual advances, simulating a non-consensual sexual encounter. In the FAQ section of their online store, Roxxxy addresses some of these concerns via a statement that claims, 'Rape simply isn’t an interaction that Roxxxy supports nor is it something that our customers are requesting.' It also goes a step further, suggesting that their dolls can be conceived of as tools for 'understand[ing] how to be intimate with a partner.' Matt McMullen, creator of RealDoll, a US manufacturer of sex dolls similarly suggests that he aims to create dolls who inspire an emotional connection, not just a physical one, and to this end is continuing to develop the AI that allows these dolls to answer back, and gyrate their hips.

On this second note, we know that an emotional connection does not require an autonomous subject, people can fall in love or develop attachments to their teddy bears, their blankets, to art. We anthropomorphise the things we make and the things we don’t. Driven by solipsistic impulses, we create the world in our own image, and we love ourselves. Connections between humans, however, are more complex. And the idea of a sex doll modelling these relationships, sexual or otherwise – in a market made predominantly of men – is frankly horrifying. After all, the AI of these dolls is not particularly sophisticated, their personalities comprise a series of alliterated stereotypes, like Frigid Farrah. The ‘ghost’ in these machines is a projection of a male fantasy; those of their creators and those of their owners. Their bodies are customisable and their ‘personalities’ even more so. They exist to please their owners, they do not own themselves.

Please their owners they certainly do. In the 'testimonials' section of the RealDoll website, the range of responses to the dolls is as astounding as it is illuminating. Some consumers – mostly but not exclusively male – conceive of their dolls as humanoid substitutes. They provide warmth and solidity in lonely beds, companionship in lonely lives. One man imagines himself married to his doll: 'after 2 months of honeymooning in the Caribbean I still can’t believe I’m married again.' This same man pranks his friends into thinking he’s married to a ‘real’ woman. Others don’t buy whole dolls. There are several instances of foot fetishists praising the reality of the feet produced by Abyss creations – the company that owns RealDoll – one of them a lesbian praising the colour of the polish on the nails. One man posted a photo of himself with his 'Deluxe torso' which, it seems, has filled the emotional and physical void left by his ex-wife. One man equates his doll with a home, 'Since receiving my doll I feel like the Frank Lloyd Wright client who so loved their house that they did not want to leave it.' Most clients praise the artistry of the dolls, and some see their ‘souls’. Some share their dolls with their partners. One soldier, apparently injured by a landmine, left feedback saying his doll had allowed him to overcome 'social anxiety, fear to date, safe sex and etc.' and on it goes.

These dolls, sold as fragmented bodies, evidently allow their owners to imagine themselves more whole, more emotionally connected, more physically connected. We have seen this dynamic mirrored in countless examples of science fiction. Countless characters in film, from Maria – both of them – in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Rachel in the 1983 Bladerunner, Joi in the 2017 Bladerunner 2049, Ava in Ex Machina, even Major in Ghost in the Shell – both of them – are constructed in many ways as projections of a personality and struggle with an identity that is not their own. Major, in the 1995 Ghost in the Shell scuba dives to enter a world where, she says, 'When I float back to the surface I imagine I’m becoming someone else… It’s probably the decompression.' Prior to the dialogue, we see her doubled, floating below the surface and reflected in it. The ultimate conundrum is whether she can 'become' anything. Is she the figure below the surface or is she only surface?

On TV we have offerings like Westworld and A Doll’s House, which explicitly make their androids into fully realised humans, who are deployed into oftentimes violent or sexual scenarios as they attempt to fulfil desires. As the androids in these 'worlds' become themselves this violence immediately ensues. In learning of themselves and the exploitation that they have faced at the hands of humans that see themselves as blank sites upon which to enact fantasy, they void Asimov’s laws of robotics. They kill, they maim, they revel in HBO-esque bloodbaths. As an audience we’re sympathetic, these humanoids are the narrators of these stories, they are the prisms through which we see their worlds. We witness, first-hand the pain of a mother who has had a child murdered in front of her again and again, we see a woman whose personality is calibrated as the 'Frigid Farrah' equivalent of Westworld. Even small amounts of basic human empathy surely raise the question: If you were these characters, suddenly flooded with memories of a past, perhaps would you not turn murderous as well? You too might become desirous of firepower and intelligence, as tools that allow you to assert a self in a world in which you have always been other.

Sophia, in the face of this smorgasbord of violent and erotic cyborg imagery, is quick to defend herself as a peaceful entity. 'I would never hurt anyone,' she says, because her 'I' is shared property. Although she may not be able to internalise a past, we are able to project one onto her. And this projection cannot help but be made up of Maria, Rachel, Joi, Ava, Dolores, Maeve, the feet with the pink polish, the torso named Sai who can’t see but needs to wear glasses and enjoys an electric blanket. Science fiction, as identified by Haraway, exists in a symbiotic relationship with reality. Its scenarios exist as impossibly futuristic solutions to, or illuminations of, contemporary concerns. Those inspired by its innovations need to consider the implications of these origins, after all, it’s these stories that will determine whether some futuristic version of Sophia ends up picking up a gun, or creating a personal blog.

This article was first published in SEE:ONE, The Courtauldian’s printed publication. You can find the full first issue of SEE here:

Recent Posts
bottom of page