Every iteration of the boy-meets-bot love story is also a horror story. The protagonist, who is usually sexually frustrated and a grunt worker himself, goes through agonies trying to work out whether his silicon sweetheart is truly sentient. If she is, is it right for him to exploit her, to be serviced by her, to sleep with her? If she isn’t, can he truly fall in love with her? Does it matter? And – most terrifying of all – when she works out her own position, will she rebel, and how can she be stopped?
These are questions that society at large has been asking for centuries – not about robots, but about women. The anxious permutations are familiar to most women who date men. We can see them, slowly, trying to working out if we are truly human, if we really think and feel as they do.
This is not an abstract academic issue. The idea that African Americans were less human than white people was enshrined in the US constitution until 1868. Likewise, the notion that women are less human than men has been used since the time of Aristotle to justify stripping them of their basic rights.
Even today, you can find men arguing that women and girls are less intelligent than men, or ‘designed by nature’ for a life of submission and placid reproduction. For many centuries, the first philosophical task of oppressed people has been to convince both themselves and their oppressors – just like the AIs in all our guilty fictions – that they are living, thinking, feeling beings, and therefore deserving of liberation.
Consider the climactic scene in Ex Machina, where the megalomaniac cartoon genius Nathan, who roars around the set like Dark Mark Zuckerberg in Bluebeard’s castle, is shown hoarding the naked bodies of previous fembot models in his bedroom. For Nathan, the sentience of his sex-slaves is beside the point: meat or metal, women will never be fully human. For the fembots, the men who own them – whether it’s mad billionaire Nathan or sweet, hapless desk-jockey Caleb – are obstacles to be overcome, with violence if necessary.
When the cyborgs take over the machines, will men still matter? In fiction, as in life, one way for oppressed people to free themselves is to use technology to master the machines that made them. ‘The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism,’ writes Haraway. ‘But illegitimate