Robots at the summer movies

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On a recent flight to Vancouver I had a chance to watch a few episodes of the TV show Humans, along with the movie Ex Machina. They both, in their own ways, deal with the time when robots approach, equal and then surpass humans. Their neural circuits become infected, as it were, with a virus that corrupts their logic and renders them aware of themselves, and their possible futures. You know that's going to end badly.

In Humans, the Synths are cyberslaves -- some are personal-care workers, others nannies or physiotherapists. Still others mindlessly hand out street samples or toil tirelessly in factories. When they function as they are designed they know only what they need to know, infer only the most vital of emotions from their human masters and speak with more purpose than grace. While their bodies look model perfect, their presence is pretence at best.

Some of the humans in the series think the Synths are God's gift to laundry day and order them about like they were disposable chambermaids. Others think they're too close to human to be treated as plug 'n' play serfs. The brilliant teenage daughter in the show's main family is in a career funk because she expects even the most highly skilled jobs, like brain surgery, will be done by Synths by the time she graduates.

And, of course, some of the Synths have (we don't know by what means yet) become self-aware, angry, ambitious, bitter and hunted. Because, you know what happens when the working class rebels -- especially when housemaids can rip doorknobs right off and a nanny can take a full-on car accident body blow.

In Ex Machina, Ada is a sentient near-human brain trapped in a metal and polymer body. She and her rejected ancestors are prisoners and domestic slaves in an remote research lab owned by the genius behind a fictional search engine giant. Ada's life experiences are really just a steady diet of human searches, uploads and phone data. Surprisingly, she doesn't act a bit like Zooey Deschanel. I won't ruin the film for you, but Ada clearly makes an excellent human.

The theme of robot as oppressed worker, as sex worker, is common to both works, but neither are didactic about it. In both, the robots are physically ideal. In Synths both male and female robots are objects of desire. One of the sentient Syths works as a prostitute in a rough trade brothel. A Magic Mike-style physio Synth is becoming the fantasy of a injured wife.

Ada is beguiling with an archetypically beautiful face on a balletic alloy frame. A house servant/sex slave in the research compound is a common sexist trope -- an Asian beauty with flawless synthetic skin.

In both works, the battleground between humans and post-humans is about power. Those in charge versus those who need to be charged. 

Of course, I haven't mentioned the other summer blockbuster that features robots that have a testy relationship with their human creators. But, they're all metal, and ugly so, really, nothing to see there, move along. It's just a movie.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

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