This is a summary of a more extended article published on Aeon magazine on March 26th 2013.
Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, delivers us Pygmalion, the Cypriot sculptor who carves the ivory statue of a perfect woman. He names her Galatea, the “one as white as milk”. The statue is so life-like that Pygmalion falls in love with it/her. He prays to Aphrodite so that the statue may come alive. Pygmalion is a tortured soul. Disillusioned with love he has denied the company of (real) women. He lives a secluded, celibate life. Aphrodite, goddess of love, grants him his wish, for no mortal has the right to remained unloved. So one night, during the festival of the love-goddess, Pygmalion kisses his perfect creation and the simulacrum comes alive.
- Pygmalion giving life with a kiss.
Loving the mecha has haunted European literature ever since. Rousseau, Goethe, Shakespeare borrowed the theme in writings of their own. Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is a reinterpretation of the myth whereby the girl is brought to life by two men in speech, the goal for their masterpiece is for her to marry and become a duchess. The stories of Frankenstein, as well as Pinocchio, also feed from the ancient concept of the metamorphosis of dead matter into a living, feeling, thinking creature.
The advent of cinema, coinciding with the expansion of the industrial revolution, saw Pygmalion’s myth in a new light. No need for divine intervention anymore. Simulacra could now be constructed using machines and machine tools. In the classic 1927 “Metropolis” by Fritz Lang, Galatea is now a mechanical woman, a simulacrum of living Maria. Her fist task is – what else? – to seduce. Here’s the classic “dance of Babylon” scene from the film:
In 1982 Ridley Scott introduced us to a future where mechas are part of society. The scene of Zhora the stripper, hunted down by the Blade Runner, and dying by smashing though successive glass windows is an unforgettable ode to human self-destruction.
Steven Spielberg, taking up where Stanley Kubrick left, directs and produces AI in 2001. Here too, mechas are used as sex objects. Gigolo Joe, played by Jude Law, is a male prostitute mecha with the ability to mimic love.
Alan Turing would have approved, for how can we really tell if someone loves us? What subtle messages lovers exchange during lovemaking that cannot be copied in a machine? Isn’t it the commonest experience in life the “betrayal” of love? In the imitation game of love there comes a time when all the words and actions shared vanish like dew under a scorching sun; when all that is left is the feeling of being fooled by a lie.
In the future, sex and love would be the first to bind humans and mechas, for only the latter will be able to mimic love so perfectly well as to make it look eternal. And that is exactly what we humans have been seeking all along.