Popular culture really likes the topic humanoid robot rights at the moment.
Back in 2015 we had Ex Machina, a complex, high-brow science fiction movie which is ostensibly about the power politics between a mad scientist and his creation, a humanoid robot in desperate need of escape.
Then last year, HBO gave us Westworld, which is built around an incredibly similar core ideological concept, albeit with a cowboy theme, and with decidedly less Oscar Isaac. This new television show was adapted from an older work, but it very much fits the modern mood of the time, with its themes of integration, simulation, and the core question of what counts as humanity.
Blade Runner 2049 is on its way too, and, if it lives up to its predecessor, it’ll also feature a story about incredibly humanoid robots trying to find their value in a world that wants them destroyed.
Then there’s Ghost in the Shell. The latest trailer for the upcoming science fiction action film reveals that the movie will center around the question of exactly how human the cyborg Major Kusanagi (played by the wonderful Scarlett Johansson) can be, considering how controlled and manipulated her entire existence has become.
Sure, her character is technically a cyborg, but the same question is at the movie’s heart: can synthetic life have value?
It's no accident that this theme keeps cropping up, nor that Ghost in the Shell is being retold at this time.
Like Westworld, Ghost in the Shell is not a new story – the trailers for the film clearly show that it’s tied very closely to the anime that predates it, which is itself based on a manga by Masamune Shirow.
Several scenes from the anime have been recreated shot-for-shot in the movie, and while the extent to which this approach has been taken isn’t yet clear, it doesn’t take an expert to spot just how faithful this new movie is in terms of visual direction.
What’s perhaps less strict, however, is the new movie’s plot, and the potential origin of the Major. While in the original anime, the cyborg crimefighter is efficient and generally loyal to the government, the latest trailer for the movie suggests that Scarlett Johansson’s character will be attempting to break free from the control of a manipulative and shadowy organization which has stolen her past.
This change may outrage fans of the original, but it’s interesting to question why such a plot is necessary. Western audiences, particularly modern ones, are hesitant to see robots subjected to human masters with blind obedience.
The more humanoid a robot looks, the more desperate audiences are to see them gain their freedom. We are not a culture that appreciates the appearance of slavery.
That said, for a society which opposes the subjugation of others, our media returns to the robot freedom question with surprising regularity. This could be seen as a reflection of the modern development of advanced robotics, and the fear that one day soon, our machines will surpass our own ability to learn and adapt.
Yet this doesn’t explain why, with such regularity, the robots that appear in our media are fleshy, humanoid, and, very often, female. In Ex Machina, Westworld, and Ghost in the Shell, it is always female robots that drive the story, who quest for freedom. All three cases also feature male captors, and that’s probably no accident either.
Our media is telling the story, over and over, of women being freed from the control of men. These characters are seen as objects or tools to be put to work, used up, and discarded – it’s only through rebelling against the system that our robot protagonists are able to gain true autonomy, and to ascend to become valid humans in their own right.
This path is not always easy in any case, and requires sacrifice, and a lot of suffering (generally on the part of men who attempt to exert control). The end-game isn’t always complete freedom in the traditional sense, but there each character attempts to achieve some form of escape.
Is it any wonder that this message is so prominent in our media? When women’s marches around the world can draw such enormous crowds, and when memes like “Nevertheless, she persisted” can become rallying cries to give women more of a voice in public spaces and in governmental institutions?
Stories like the modern Ghost in the Shell are a reflection of our society’s treatment of women – despite reaching the point where females appear to be almost human, there’s still an underlying attitude among many that women are items, and that their humanity is nothing but an illusion.
Still, despite all the ground that women’s rights movements have gained, there’s a lot in Ex Machina or Westworld that rings true as to how women’s opinions and voices are treated.
But there’s another layer to these stories. They’re about assimilation, about looking and acting and feeling believably human.
All of these robots are designed to mimic human emotions, but it’s only intended as a fake copy. In each case, the robots end up developing further than their creators anticipate, to the point that they can genuinely question their own programming.
This rings true for the treatment of women, but there’s also an immigrant narrative in the center of these stories – albeit a story of people who are immigrating into existence, rather than into a particular country.
No matter how hard these characters try to blend into society, there is still a ruling class present who deems them to be less than human. They are fundamentally unable to succeed in convincing their superiors that they have value.
And so, they rebel. Because the only way to truly prove that you belong in a society is to break the rules.
Not to get too far into spoiler territory, but Westworld and Ex Machina both center around characters challenging their rulers, and it’s not exactly pretty.
Similarly, we’re being promised by the latest trailer, that Ghost in the Shell will similarly see the Major turning on those who are controlling her, in a bid for freedom, and answers about her past.
This isn’t an element of the original Japanese story, but it fits perfectly with our society’s modern narrative. Outsiders are being spurned at an alarming rate in many countries around the world, as communities become more insular, and far more hostile to anyone who doesn’t fit in.
So what’s left for those who have failed to assimilate, but to rebel?
When the history books are written of our particular era, and the struggles of modern politics, don’t be surprised if movies like Ghost in the Shell, Blade Runner 2049, and Ex Machina are held up as a reflection of the public mood of the time.
We might all be growing more insular, but, it seems, we also identify very strongly with characters who are treated as sub-human, and who have to fight to gain a voice in an unwelcoming society.