Love, Sex and Robots: from The Song of Songs to Ex Machina
If a “techno femme fatale” is the woman of your dreams, your ideas of sex and romance may stem from the 4th Century Bible readings of St. Augustine.
Robots are on the rise! Most especially sex robots or “sexbots.” Both in real life and certainly in recent films and TV, sexy and seductive female robots predominate. So in Ex Machina, an attractive robot named Ava is played with devastating nuance and power by Alicia Vikander. Ava, however, is only the latest incarnation of what Prof. Mia Consalvo has aptly named the “techno-femme fatale” – a robot or machine literally embodying the female as (fatal) seductress. Examples from film and TV abound – going all the way back, in fact, to the first robot film, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis from 1927.
Indeed, as the adopted name/persona for Lang’s robot – Maria – suggests, Metropolis drew extensively from Biblical and Christian sources – including, we’ll see below, Saint Augustine. At the same time, at least one contemporary and very secular enthusiast, David Levy, has confidently predicted that we will not only have great sex with such devices: we will fall in love and want to marry them as well. I’ll show that Levy, along with contemporary film and TV writers (not to mention, sex doll manufacturers), in fact rely on Augustine far more than they realize – much to the detriment of our conceptions of women, sexuality, and love, both human and divine. The ultimate point here is to sort through these diverse understandings and sources of erotic love, in order to help us better discern what our own beliefs about these may be.
Love, sex – and the Bible?
To start: what are “love” and “sex” – and how are they connected – if at all? Ancient Biblical and secular sources set a pretty high bar for what erotic love and sex may be. Think of the Song of Solomon’s famous passages celebrating eros: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave” (8.6a, NRSV trans.). From here, it is not uncommon to describe human love for the Divine – and vice-versa – in frankly erotic terms. Indeed, some of the most striking images depicting the ecstasy of mystics as thoroughly absorbed within the loving embrace of the Divine are breathtakingly sexual – e.g., Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini’s depiction of St. Teresa.
In more contemporary culture, Leonard Cohen, reflecting his primarily Jewish sensibilities, captures this full melding of the sacred and the profane, the human and the divine, in Hallelujah: “Remember when I moved in you / the Holy Dove was movin’ too / and every breath we drew was Hallelujah.”
(Biblically) erotic robots?
Can a robot, much less sex with a robot, measure up to this sort of passionate eros and experience? Certainly not now, and, most AI (Artificial Intelligence) and robot practitioners agree, not in the foreseeable near future. First of all, robots and AIs cannot feel real emotions, much less desires – including eros – that we, as embodied human beings, know in immediate, “first-person” fashion. Rather, what robots and AIs are increasingly good at is recognizing human emotions, and then responding in ways that seem as if they are driven by real emotions. It is now a well understood and exploited technique: the appearance of emotions works to trick us into believing – and feeling – that such devices have emotions, including care and desire for us. But again, since the machines are incapable of real emotions, they are simply “faking it,” however persuasively.
This is one of the critical lessons shown in the film Ex Machina. Ava reads her male companions’ emotions far more accurately than any human can do (e.g., as betrayed by pupil dilation, changes in breath and heart rate, “micro-blushing,” etc. that her sensors capture and her AI programming “understands”). In turn, she flirts in both subtle and more obvious ways with the young Caleb, a programmer whose job is to determine whether or not Ava is indeed self-conscious in a human-like way. As Ava’s final, entirely heartless (of course) actions make clear, her display of emotions, including vulnerability, fear, flirtatious affection, and so on, are all a fake – part of a trap that she lays (successfully) in order to attain her goal of release. Ava thereby continues the now long tradition of the “techno-femme fatale” – on display in Lang’s Metropolis. In particular, the robot Maria likewise adopts a female form that demonstrates her powers of attraction and seduction as she portrays nothing less than “the Whore of Babylon”
Her dance drives the observing men into a frenzy of mad desire – to the point that one kills another in the ruthless competition for her attention.
Sex, Sin, and Saint Augustine
Perhaps surprisingly, these high-tech modern conceptions can be traced to the 4th century theologian Saint Augustine – most especially the image and personality of Ava. To begin with, her name conflates “Adam” and “Eve,” the primal couple portrayed in the second Genesis creation story (2.4b-3.24 – or, on more feminist readings, through 4.25). Augustine reads this account as a “Fall” story: our Fall begins with Eve’s disobeying the Creator’s warning to not eat of the fruit bringing knowledge of good and evil. A core component of this new knowledge was the couple’s recognition of their nakedness, including their sexuality. Augustine, however, was deeply influenced by dualistic philosophies and theologies that sharply divide mind from body: moreover, rationality is male, while women literally embody the non-rational emotions and passions. For Augustine, Eve then becomes the original femme fatale: our “Fall” and “Original Sin” resulted in part from Adam’s failing to resist the temptation of the fruit as presented by Eve.
It is essential to note that earlier (and later) Jewish and Christian readings of the Genesis story were (and are) far more positive: Eve’s act was the pivotal stage in the creation of human beings as free creatures, endowed precisely with ethical sensibilities and the powers of sexual reproduction. (These readings, in fact, are foundational to modern democracies, but that’s a story for another day.) By contrast, the upshot of Augustine’s reading was a demonization of “woman” as a sexual being, and so of body and sexuality per se: so, for example, it was common in Medieval art to represent the snake as a woman. The French philosopher René Descartes, a primary source of modern thought, develops a secular version of Augustine’s teaching – beginning with a conception of “mind,” as a pure rationality radically divorced from body, as the locus of the passions and certainly sexuality. But this means: where the mind is the locus of personhood, including our moral agency, sensibilities, and ethical commitments – the strict separation between mind and body entails that sexuality has nothing to do with interactions between persons: sex can only be an impersonal, irrational, desire-driven pursuit of solely physical stimulation.
Modernity proceeds from these assumptions in two strikingly divergent directions. In the first direction, the Augustinian view remains firmly entrenched: even in highly secular cultures, women remain pressed to conform to the Augustinian dichotomy between the sexually “pure” virgin or the all-but-irresistible temptress whose sexuality threatens male rationality (and patriarchal control). Again, men must be eternally on their guard against the (techno-) femme fatale, including the robot as “the Whore of Babylon” in Metropolis, and her contemporary sister Ava in Ex Machina.
Back to the Bible? Hence the very great irony is that Levy’s vision of sex and love with robots thus owes much to St. Augustine’s image of women, body and sexuality as divorced from (real) persons. For my part, however, I’m more moved by The Song of Songs, St. Teresa, Leonard Cohen – and Edvard Munch [Madonna].
On these views, erotic love and sexuality emerge between two (real) persons, not simply between two (more or less generic) bodies. That is, eros erases the boundaries between mind and body: to use the theological concept, erotic love fully incarnates who we are as unique persons through our specific, distinctive bodies. Likewise, eros erases the boundaries between self and Other, and, most grandly, human and divine.
However you may respond – I hope you find this exploration of love, sex and robots a helpful way to clarify your own beliefs about these most central elements of human experience and identity.