I, Sexy Robot: Will Humans Put A New Spin On Female AI?

Photo: Courtesy AMC.
If you feel like the concept of artificial intelligence has reached Kimye-levels of exposure, you're not alone. Whether it's Elon Musk calling A.I. an "existential threat," or Steve Wozniak talking about humans being turned into pets, the high-tech topic is dominating the news cycle.

It's also dominating pop culture. A.I. has long been a favorite theme with filmmakers, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Blade Runner to The Matrix to I, Robot to, of course, Spielberg's A.I. Artificial Intelligence. This summer alone has given us Avengers: Age of Ultron, Terminator Genisys, and, on the small screen, Humans, the new British sci-fi drama that premiered on AMC on June 28. The show is quickly drawing an audience, as well as praise that it might just be shifting how females are portrayed in the A.I. genre.

It's typical of the A.I. field for males to be transformed into hyper-intelligent, physically powerful beings (think James Spader's Ultron and Arnold Schwarzenegger's cyborg). Females, meanwhile, are more often than not presented as sexually manipulative fembots, with the most recent example being Ava in Ex Machina. Even Scarlett Johansson's Samantha in Her could be pinned as a seducer and user in true A.I. form. One can't help but imagine the actual negligee-wearing fembots from Austin Powers. So, how is Humans any different?

Set a few years into the future — in an interview with Refinery29, show writers Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent were quick to clarify that it's neither a dystopian nor utopian society— Humans sees a world in which A.I. synths are something one might buy as casually as an iPad. They read bedtime stories, do the shopping, and pester you to take your meds. They mop the floors of schools, pick fruit for corporate conglomerates, and work as sex slaves in a brothel. It'd be easy to write the female synths off as nags, nurturers, or sex-bots, but that's where the show's premise throws in a twist. It turns out, some synths — including Gemma Chan's enchanting housekeeper Anita and prostitute Niska (played by Emily Berrington) — have a programming "glitch" of sorts that renders them "conscious" and subject to human emotions and sensations, including pain. These women don't want to be servants and sex slaves; they want real lives with real feelings.

For Niska, this means reacting violently to a client with a little girl fetish and breaking out of her brothel prison. Anita, meanwhile, is locked in a sort of maternal power struggle with her human boss, Laura (Katherine Parkinson), a harried lawyer and mother of three who resents having a robot in the house. Laura doesn't like the close bond Anita has formed with her youngest daughter, and it's a really good thing she knows nothing about her teen son trying to fondle a sleeping Anita's breast before she wakes up and catches his wandering hand.
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Photo: Courtesy AMC.
So, yes, those are two instances of women being viewed as sex objects. In each case, however, the female synth puts a stop to it, either by lashing out or by firmly reminding the son that any pervy behavior will be reported to his parents. That's just one instance in which Humans seems to break free of the standard male / female roles within A.I. pop culture.

It's not black and white. One could argue that the human women in Humans aren't exactly likable, from the pissy Laura, to the meddling NHS case worker who insists on installing a bossy female synth in star, William Hurt's home. Two episodes in, it's too soon to tell how Anita and Niska's stories will be fleshed out, but for now the show seems to be both recognizing the fetishistic appeal of A.I. females, while also trying to veer from that. According to "tech optimists" Vincent and Brackley, the show is an opportunity to question the morality of artificial intelligence. How will "synths" be programmed? Is there any possibility of a gay synth? How will they be treated? And, why do synths even need a gender identity?

The writers say that humans will assign gender to A.I. forms simply because it's familiar and relatable. Will the sexism be familiar, too? Let's hope not.

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