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We need to deal with our love of sexy robots

Because the robots we want to love may have other ideas

What does the future hold? In our new series “Imagining the Next Future,” Polygon explores the new era of science fiction — in movies, books, TV, games, and beyond — to see how storytellers and innovators are imagining the next 10, 20, 50, or 100 years during a moment of extreme uncertainty. Follow along as we deep dive into the great unknown.

Robot girlfriends are made to be loved — usually by their own creators. But human audiences are far from immune to androids’ charms, no matter how inhuman their crushes might appear. This trope has been kicking around pop culture for decades, and the audience’s favorites might not be who you expect. As the presence of real android companions looms closer each day, we also need to start seriously thinking about why we make some robots into companions or surrogate children, but others into lovers.

And yes. There are some robot boyfriends out there, too.

Artificial people have a surprisingly broad presence in myths and folktales around the world. Then, as now, they were often built to perform demanding physical tasks: the gigantic Talos guarded a princess, while the Golem of Prague protected a whole community. But there are also plenty of stories where creators are smitten with their own constructs. In Japan, an apocryphal story about the 17th century artist Hidari Jingorō describes the creation of a life-size doll that he talked to, doted on, and finally succeeded in bringing to life.

But the most well-known and frequently adapted story in this mythopoeic genre is the Greek myth of Pygmalion. Uninterested in women, the volcel sculptor instead fixated on a statue of a woman he had carved out of ivory — treating her like a human and showering her with gifts like “shells” and “smooth pebbles.” (He may not have been dating, but Pygmalion knew what a girl wanted.) Eventually, the goddess of love transformed his inanimate crush into a living woman called Galatea, and blessed their union.

The original Pygmalion myth has an unambiguously positive ending, where creator and creation lived happily ever after. It’s refreshing, not because Greek myths have never held back from tragedies and bad ends, but because it feels out of place within our modern understanding of how stories about artificial people typically go.

No matter how humanoid they look, or how much they are loved, the robot is an outsider in a world of humans. Sooner or later they recognize it. Be they Roy Batty or Ultron, Cortana or Chappie, the artificial intelligence finds themself thrust into an identity crisis, and question their loyalties in the process. This recognition can lead to a conflict between creator and construct — a gulf of understanding that is difficult to bridge, if it can be bridged at all.

Did Galatea never have second thoughts about her relationship with Pygmalion from atop her pile of smooth rocks? Did she ever have an argument with him or confront him over what she was supposed to be, as did Frankenstein’s monster? Did she even rebel a little, running off to smoke cigars with her pals, like Pinocchio? Why isn’t this even entertained as a possibility in the original myth?

These stories of artificial people are defined by the intentions of their creators, not the creations. For Pygmalion, Galatea is a companion, created to live by his side and look hot doing it. Victor Frankenstein and Gepetto, meanwhile, both saw their creations take on a role where rebellion is expected or even accepted — that of the child.

It came as no surprise to me, as I imagine it won’t to many of you, that “girl” robots — robots with feminine attributes or “coding,” frequently called gynoids — are far more likely to appear as the object of their creator’s romantic or sexual interests; while masculine-coded androids are usually sons, not boytoys. The objectification of women and femmes in shared pop culture — and the discomfort with male sexuality — remains ingrained no matter how often we recognize and remark upon it.

But I wondered if, as with Galatea herself, there might be a gap between creator intent and actual outcome in the creation of these stories as well as in their characters. Are the robots that the audience considers sexiest the ones who were created to be sexy? I took to Twitter, with two variations on the same survey:

The nuance emerged. Fembot crushes varied widely, but a major theme appeared to be how likely they were to crush you. Fallout 4’s KL-E-0 and System Shock’s SHODAN were popular choices, and among men and women alike GLaDOS was declared “wife city.” On the boys’ side, Transformers like Cheetor were beloved, as were more recent entries like Detroit: Become Human’s Connor. Few if any robots on either side had been originally written with their physical or romantic appeal in mind, and many of the more famous and traditionally attractive female contenders (Blade Runner’s Pris, Halo’s Cortana) appeared to be left out.

And then there was Data.

Lieutenant Commander Data, the android of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s ensemble cast and a recurring character to the franchise as recently as Picard, has emerged over the years as a pop culture heartthrob. (In my Twitter poll he was named at least 6 times.) Yet in 30 years of screen time, his potential as a being capable of romance or sexual appeal has been explored only a few times, with far more time being spent on his identity as an orphan who has lost his creator.

As the creation of eccentric inventor Dr. Noonien Soong, and an unparalleled artificial intelligence (minus an evil brother or two), Data is driven to overcome the gulf of understanding between himself and his biological peers, and in doing so creates a surrogate family among his crewmates on the Enterprise. He can tear through steel beams and keeps a pet cat. And he is extraordinarily popular among fans.

As far back as 1987, Next Generation devotees published newsletters dedicated to their faves, and the fan magazine Data Entries spanned 45 issues. The quarterly collections of art, fanfiction and behind-the-scenes ephemera are time capsules from a bygone era of fandom, but the true fun reading these zines is seeing the enthusiasm and affection for a character who can’t feel either of those things.

“He’s a really accessible personality,” Data’s actor Brent Spiner told the Orlando Sentinel in 1990. “He’s vulnerable and innocent, and there’s a feeling that he’s somebody who would be kind.” Spiner received torrents of fan mail over his career playing the android, and the fact that many of them were love letters addressed to Data is a well-polished nugget of Trekkie history. Yet Data’s appeal isn’t exclusively romantic or sexual, and 30 years of collective cultural fondness have evolved in interesting ways.

In 2018, I helped run a panel about pop culture’s most attractive robots for Flamecon, New York City’s LGBTQ comic convention. Panelists had no reservations in offering sage insights (“Canti from FLCL is a sex icon. Watson the Jeopardy computer is an incel.”) When Data inevitably came up as a topic, fellow panelist Shivana Sookdeo objected, crying, “I can’t fuck Data! He’s my son!” I will carry this phrase with me until the day I die.

The elephant in the room here, of course, is that humanoid robots are no longer a concept exclusive to folktales and science fiction, and their lifelikeness in appearance and social capability is improving all the time. The androids and gynoids we see in real life are designed almost exclusively for service tasks, and yes, those services include sex work and companionship. Over the course of the COVID-19 quarantine, the company Realbotix has reported a surge in sales of their sexbots; their flagship robot Harmony was designed to remember names and carry on conversations, among other things.

These functions will only grow more sophisticated. Everyone’s wary of the sexbot who turns into a killbot, but no one thinks of the sexbot who just wants to stay friends. We’re already witnessing a technological landscape where artificial neural networks develop in unexpected and unpredictable ways — we can surely expect that of any artificial intelligence in any role as they grow in sophistication and self-awareness. Developers in the field of AI — and science fiction writers, for that matter — should be mindful that their intentions for their creations can have very little to do with how their creations are perceived by the public. Humans in general should also expect that one day, the robots around us will start to chafe against any of the roles we’ve assigned them, in fiction or reality.

Of all the versions of that story about the sculptor Hidari Jingorō that exist, there’s one that’s particularly interesting. The realistic automaton he created was capable of many feats before she was truly brought to life. She could move, but Jingorō was her puppeteer. She could speak, but her words were always that of her creator. Her life — the sentience and self-identity that allowed her to speak her mind and move as she wished — only truly emerged when she was given a new object: a mirror.

The line between when we see robots as our offspring and when we see them as our lovers is already soft. We should firm it up before our Galateas and Sexy Datas do it themselves.