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Galateas and AIs

January 15, 2016

[Latest in what has become an occasional series reviewing pairs of romantic dramas. See previous entries here (Primer and The Prestige), here (Upstream Color and To The Wonder), and here (Side Effects and The One I Love).]

Gérôme, Pygmalion et Galatée, 1890

Gérôme, Pygmalion et Galatée, 1890

In Ovid’s myth of Pygmalion, the eponymous sculptor, scorning human women, carves in marble an ideal wife. He falls in love with his creation, but, of course, it’s still ivory; so he prays to Venus that she be made flesh-and-blood, Venus grants it, and Pygmalion and the statue, given the name Galatea, live happily ever after.


Two recent films, Her (2013) and Ex Machina (2015), have a curious relation to this myth.

Both films seem, at first glance, to argue that the creation of artificial intelligence should be understood through it, not, as is usual, through the myth of Prometheus. For all their differences in tone, they share a common premise: lonely, nerdy man meets feminine (and sexy) artificial intelligence; at first he doubts that she counts as a person, then he comes to hope that she counts as a person, then, so much in love with her is he, he ceases to care about philosophical categories like “person,” and just treats her as a human being.

But then, both films subvert the myth: the AI refuses the role of Galatea, and instead, having been offered her freedom, takes the offer seriously, leaving the Pygmalion figure behind. In the bittersweet Her, he comes away emotionally matured; in the bloodcurdling Ex Machina, he winds up more isolated than before (to put it mildly).


What to make of this denial of the romantic happy ending? We can chalk it up, in part, to this difference between works of art, and artificial intelligences: we know the former can’t come to life, and so feel free to fantasize about it, but we’re not sure about the latter, and find the topic disturbing—a happy ending to either of these movies would not sit well with the audience. We prefer the cautionary tale.

But there’s more to it than this. Consider another key difference between these films and the Pygmalion myth: here the main character, though nerdy, is never the nerd who actually created the AI. He’s less Pygmalion than a visitor in Pygmalion’s studio. In Her, the creator is invisible, a faceless tech company about which we ought not ask too many questions. (It’s almost as if the AI creates herself.) In Ex Machina, he’s a soulless Jobs/Page/Zuckerberg pastiche who can do little more than drink, scheme, misquote, and namedrop (like an incarnation of the Reddit hivemind), and who seems, even if he did create the AI in some sense, to have no valid claim to own her. (His fate does not sadden us.)

This has some important implications. If the main character isn’t the programmer, then the romance between man and AI is not mapped on to that between creator and creation. This means that, insofar as these movies are about realizing erotic fantasies, they’re about our discomfort with the fact that someone else is intuiting those fantasies and realizing them for us. If the “someone else” is the programmer, then we have to see him as little more than a pornographer; if the “someone else” is the AI, then we have to ask why she’s trying to seduce us.

ex-machina-posterThe fear of seduction suggests a new way to understand the “artificial” in artificial intelligence: we fear AI not as something made by an artificer, but as something fraudulent, inauthentic. The point is not that a human made her, it’s that God didn’t. We’re not sure if she’s real—really a person, really in love with him. Read this way, the movies become parables of misogyny, showing the difficulties men have telling the difference between the questions “is she in love with me?” and “can she love at all?” The myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, these movies tell us, didn’t even realize that there was a difficulty to be had here: it simply indulged in a misogynistic, pornographic fantasy.


Of course, “no one” today—or at least in these films—believes in anything like God, so the anxiety about artificiality is contagious. If she’s not real, are we? Are our desires anything more than what nature or nurture have programmed into us? Are we, too, artificial?

These movies find reassurance in the fact that humans are programmed only metaphorically. We’re like a stage play; a literally artificial intelligence is like a film. For the former, there’s a script, but however rigorously you try to follow it no two performances are quite the same; for the latter, there exists a set of mechanical instructions that will produce the same result a limitless number of times.

Put another way, humans and AI relate to their bodies in different ways. You can build an AI’s body to have pleasure sensors, and so simulate having sex with it, as in Ex Machina; or you talk sexy with it, or have it take over a human being like a sock puppet, and have sex with her, as in Her; but ultimately the AI is an algorithm running on a computational device, not an animate body. It might run on many devices concurrently, or diffused across a network. Whereas, when it comes to human beings, whatever transhumanists imagine, we still have no reason to think that their minds can be abstracted from their bodies.

Pygmalion (Stuck)

Franz Stuck, Pygmalion, c. 1900

This difference is a plot point in both movies; it ensures that the men and their AI lovers cannot be together. Neither movie says it directly, but this difference amounts to: AI reproduce mechanically, humans reproduce sexually, and this somehow means that humans and AIs cannot share a social world. It’s almost as if there’s some sort of connection between intercourse, reproduction, and conversation.


I want to put in a word for Pygmalion and Galatea. Yes, he’s a misogynist, before Galatea comes to life. We can blame him for this, but after all it’s difficult not to hate what we neither know nor understand, and at this point Pygmalion lives isolated from all women. Sculpting Galatea makes him willing to reconsider this isolation. In Ovid’s version, he prays to Venus thus:

“If you can grant all things, you gods, I wish as a bride to have…” and not daring to say “the girl of ivory” he said “one like my ivory girl.”

So, yes, Pygmalion’s secret desire may well be to make love to an artificial statue, but give him credit: he asks not for a statue, but for a girl. When Venus grants his prayer, she doesn’t give him an artificial woman: Galatea is a real human being, able to talk, and able to bear children (they have a son named Paphos).

The central question is: when she comes to life, how does Pygmalion react? Does he seize possession of her (as in Gérôme’s version), or does he fall down awestruck (as in Stuck’s)?


I enjoyed both of these movies, but I also think that both dodge the real question; they end with the AI pulling A Doll’s House, but what if her reaction was closer to An Ideal Husband? Neither considers the possibility that we might—if only by accident, or miracle—invent or discover a new form of life with whom our intercourse would not be meaningless or artificial; with whom we would have to find a way to live together. That would be a thing to wonder at. What would we do if an AI or alien really did love us—and yet really was different from us, not merely homo silicon?


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