ONLINE ONLY: The Ghost and the Machine

Sexbots, WALL-E and the desert of the real

Film Modern Life Science Technology

Suddenly, the robots are coming-and not just to summer blockbusters. Last month, an Israeli company demonstrated a robotic exoskeleton called ReWalk. It literally allows the wheelchair-bound to walk again. Earlier this year, alongside the release of Iron Man, news agencies were given a preview of technology developed for the US Army by Raytheon in Utah. Their robot suits give soldiers superhuman levels of strength and endurance.

In 2008, for just £250 you can cuddle up with a baby dinosaur called Pleo. For £200 you can shoot the breeze with the tiny, voice-controlled I-Sobot. Sega has even announced EMA (Eternal Maiden Actualization): a 38cm robotic girlfriend. On sale from September, EMA will dance, sing and kiss you on command – as long as her batteries don’t run out. Sega expect to sell lonely, twentysomething men 10,000 EMAs within a year.

ReWalk is a technological marvel, but EMA is a sign that our love affair with robots can also become a subject for pity. As they continue to improve, we face extraordinary opportunities-but also perhaps real danger. We will possess tireless mechanical aids that serve us without question; we will also have ever more sophisticated replacements for the living companionship of a pet or a partner. Love and work, as Freud understood, are the foundations of human society. What happens when the robots take both away?

The rovers Spirit and Opportunity have already gone to Mars for us; Roomba can take care of the vacuuming at home; EMA, Pleo and their successors will, if we choose, free us from the chore of maintaining a genuine relationship. Faced with such potential, we must be prepared to ask not just what robots can do for us (in the long run, nearly everything), but voice the fear, “what may they do to us”?

If robots are allowed to take all the physical and social effort out of life, lulling us with electronic flattery and 24/7 service, our humanity runs the risk of becoming redundant.

That is the message of Pixar’s WALL-E, a mass-market children’s film that is nonetheless a more subtle and insightful critique of these technological trends than the newest intellectual book of choice on the subject, David Levy’s Love and Sex with Robots. Levy, an ardent techno-optimist, argues that by 2050 we will be marrying – and enjoying passionate sex with – robots that will possess “capacity for serving as our companions, our lovers, and our life partners … in many ways … superior to those of mere mortals”. WALL-E offers a U-rated but much darker prospect: if we make robots our slaves and our intimates, there may come a time when the most human thing left on Earth will be a machine.

Pixar imagines that future as a pair of desolate cities. One, on the abandoned Earth, is Baudrillard’s “desert of the real”, an empty and decaying residuum, its only new skyscrapers the towers of compacted trash collected by WALL-E, the planet’s last caretaker. The other city, floating in space, is the hyperreal world that our descendants have retreated into: a decadent playpen for oversized babies. Humankind’s remnant cannot walk and have never been weaned, taking all their meals in liquid form. Driven in straight lines through endless automated routines, these will-less blobs, their vestigial skeletons buried under layers of fat, loll in robotic pushchairs, flattered by robotic beauticians and watch idly, dabbing at a touchpad, as the robots play tennis for them. It is the future as a hell built out of ceaseless indulgence, an error that Aristotle exposed two and a half millennia ago in Book Ten of his Nicomachean Ethics.

The fact, too, that a friend is different from a flatterer seems to make it plain that pleasure is not a good… And no one would choose to live with the intellect of a child throughout his life, however much he were to be pleased at the things that children are pleased at, nor to get enjoyment by doing some most disgraceful deed, though he were never to feel any pain in consequence.

These robots are not humankind’s friends, but their flatterers-and by indulging humans for too long, denying them necessary growing pains, the robots have become, as the plot reveals, not humankind’s slaves but their masters. In a life on “full autopilot”, only the computer has the wheel.

Into this double nightmare, a decaying world of achievement and a bubble of illusion where chattering screens hover in front of every man and woman’s face and no one encounters a living presence, Pixar bring an unlikely hero: WALL-E, whose centuries among the heaped fragments of civilised life have made him the last bearer of our tradition. Throughout the film he is a catalyst for the awakening of humane sentiment and willed effort in all those he meets, in his rusty determination inspiring others to escape the clutch of sleeker, more helpful machines.

WALL-E is Pixar near its best. This may not be as perfectly structured as the original Toy Story nor as manically inventive as Monsters, Inc., but it is a wise and beautiful commentary on how technology can steal the world away from us. Thrown from their robo hover chairs, the posthumans look around in amazement. “I didn’t know we had a pool!” Slowly they crawl to awareness, recognising that they must cultivate their garden in the real world, not listen to the robot sycophants. Pixar’s insight is both consoling and challenging: humanity will never be redundant; nothing else can build a civilised world.

Some commentators have protested that, considered as an eco-parable or political satire, WALL-E is only cheap and trite. But these elements are superficial and decorative. The meat of the story, as the director has stressed in interview, is not a call for a better recycling policy or a blast at Bush but a terrible warning of the wilderness we make of a city and a civilisation when we no longer connect with reality or with one another.

It is a stroke of ironic genius by Pixar to have placed a human soul inside that most soulless of objects, the robot. The ghosts dancing in Pixar’s computers become a celebration of the wisdom that empty flattery is not enough. Two misfits and a cockroach on a heap of rubble give more hope for the future than a sleek spacecraft if the former have love and the latter only has robots. All our technological achievements are hollow if they are not animated by love.