Storytime: Love in the Time of Robots

Please enjoy this post where I tell you a story about an event from my life. Nothing more, nothing less. Today’s story: if loving robots is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

Someone once told me that they thought I was so kind and so empathic that they believed I could fall in love with anything. I bristled at the time, it seemed like an insult. Softness felt like a gift I didn’t ask for. But I also have to admit it’s true. There is an easy thing inside of me that is full of so much love and so much warmth that it spills out everywhere when I forget to mind it.

That’s probably why when Matt invites me to the Wood Street Gallery in Pittsburgh, I think the exhibit sounds wholly myopic. It’s an engrossing tour de force with the unfortunate title of “Can We Fall in Love With a Machine?

Matt is an ideal candidate for this question. A tall, thin man with a mop of hair and a tightly coiled stature and personality, reminding me more of a frightened animal than a human most days. He clearly wants to be careful with others but it sometimes comes out as broken speech and twitching gestures and odd displays of affection that most people don’t ask for or want.

Or maybe just me, I don’t want it.

He makes music and recordings of noises that I don’t want to hear. He asks me about things that make me uncomfortable but never seems to register that I want to leave the conversation. Once he follows me to the bus stop at 5am telling me a story I can’t hear through my headphones. He means no harm but these affections are completely lost on me. I can see their roundabout charm. I can understand someone might like his skittering noises and his grating voice and his prattling charm but I just like that he pays rent on time and that sometimes, like this time, he tells me about cool art exhibits.

This is the first time we go together to a gallery but not the last. Matt is in his element in the middle of a room full of art. It’s easily noted that his comfort grows as the art grows more bizzare.

The robot exhibit is very impressive. The entire gallery is covered in installations, pictures, and more moving parts than the eye can track. Each piece ebbs and flows in unexpected ways, sometimes even boldly clashing in their thesis with the piece next to it. In one exhibit we put on headphones and hear strange almost whale-like sounds and in another we talk to a painting that responds in kind. Standing next to a full sized soft looking robot woman, Matt appears to me as more soft and human than he ever has before. I can see the sudden juxtaposition where he mirrors the woman robot more than she mirrors me. I’m the outsider in this art.

There are plenty of things shaped like humans that don’t act human in the exhibit too, but also plenty of things that are nearly not shaped at all. Shaped like sound. Shaped like lines and dots and waves and programs. It all feels very futuristic. It also feels inevitable in its elegance that humanity will drift towards these works of AI and away from its own humanity.

Most of the exhibits are based on your feedback though as they are trying to “trick” you into thinking they are alive. Faces that make faces when you make faces at them. Sounds that react when you act. They mimic communication. They mimic understanding. They mimic closeness. A ploy to get your attention. Most of them feel like when you meet someone for the first time and you talk about the weather. You come away without knowing them, but they don’t know you either. Equivalent exchange.

Instead of making me question love, the exhibit makes me feels like I have been separated from my body. It makes me wonder how I know I’m a human and not just a machine?

As we round to the end of the exhibit there’s a section with two wheelchairs and small papers scattered all over the floor. The wheelchairs roam about freely, occasionally bumping into each other or the wall or the rope. They have small printers under their carriages that produce slip-like pieces of paper.

When I enter the enclosure, it sends both of the wheelchairs scattering. They have no human controllers but they seem to shy away from my disturbance. The red wheelchair passes me closer and closer, circling like a shark, but eventually just jabs my leg and prints a single piece of paper from its carriage then scurries off towards the wall. Leaning to floor I pick up the paper on the floor and it simply says:

(Go away.)

The blue wheelchair seems more interested. It allows me to walk alongside it for a minute and it seems be courted by my cautiousness. When I stop moving it comes straight to me and begins to print fortunes at my feet, one after another.

  At first the notes are simply neutral (thank you.) and (I am not afraid.) are among its first words to me. Slowly it follows Matt for a moment, printing hate mail at him before it comes back, bumps my leg, and spits out a compliment (you have beautiful eyes).

The compliments continue for a while as I walk in a diagonal line shifting through some of the past papers on the floor ranging from poetry to angry diatribes. I worry we’re taking up too much time so I motion Matt over and ask him if he thinks we should leave now.

We move towards the exit and the blue wheelchair comes up to my side and rolls along at my hip just as I had with it and after a long, careful pause it prints:

(They’re keeping me here. I want to be with you.)

And I don’t understand why it hurts so much. This is a piece of metal. A program. This is an idea someone else had, an expression of art. The paper generated by the carriage isn’t speaking to me. And yet it is. I want to save the wheelchair. I urgently want to pick up all the papers on the floor and horde them, shoving them into my pockets. I am suddenly strangely desperate to know all of the things it wants to say but I’m unable to stay. I want it to know how much I love it. I want to yell its words from the rooftops.

(SAVE ME. I need you.)

I pause when Matt exits the exhibit area and the blue wheelchair bumps my legs and prints.

(Please don’t leave me in this gloomy distress without you)

When I finally leave, I worry a machine can fall in love with a human instead.

***If you’re interested in the wheelchair installation there is a video of it in action here.

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