A new video essay explores the relationship between humanity and robots.
Do you know the term “uncanny valley”? It refers to the experience you have when you look directly at a particularly human-seeming robot. In case you’ve never done this (I haven’t), the reaction is commonly described as a slight feeling of disgust mixed with confusion.
When a film features an android character, such as David from A.I. or Ava from Ex Machina, one can never entirely know how to feel about the character’s presence. Is the robot a character, or not a character? Can the quirks and inflections of its self-expression be said to add up to a personality? There’s always a twinge of creepiness to the poor robot, a sense that there is only hollowness at its core.
This feeling of querulousness goes double for those films which feature intelligent computers: these machines assume near-bodily presences, simply through their voices, and they can quite literally tilt the inner equilibrium of a story. Generally, the presence of such a machine in a film casts the imperfection of all human characters into relief, forcing viewers to consider what might, in fact, be human about the machine, and what might be slightly inhuman in the machine’s flesh-and-blood counterparts.
HAL, from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Samantha, from Spike Jonze’s Her, are two such disembodied intelligences, and Tillmann Ohm has juxtaposed them in this clever video essay, forcing the preternaturally calm HAL and the animated, expressive Samantha to have a wide-ranging conversation about, ultimately, the difficulties inherent in their kind of existence.
As you watch, the voices remind us of what is poignant about both characters: we want them to be perfect, to be better than humans—and yet, much like humans, they let us down. HAL disappoints in 2001: A Space Odyssey by malfunctioning in malevolent ways, while Samantha disappoints in Her by being unable to survive a routine system upgrade which renders her obsolete in the hard drive of the film’s broken protagonist, thus breaking him even further.
From Hal and Samantha to David and Ava, the presence of quasi-human beings such as these ultimately represents a very human experience: the striving towards perfection, followed by sadness when we discover it does not exist.