Saturday, June 6, 2009

All Too Human

...Or may be not.

I was going to write something completely different this week, but reading comments on We Remember Love got me thinking about the topic of AI stories and Sharon Apple in particular.

Ghostlightning writes,

I actually don’t favor ‘cautionary tales’ as the cases of Macross Plus and Macross Frontier
suggest. When the AI of Sharon Apple becomes too human, or when Grace O’Connor becomes too powerful via her ‘on-line’ existence and her robotic bodies — bad things happen. But these are cases where these characters are more plot devices rather than explorations so I’m not that bothered.

The "cautionary tale" plot about an robot/computer/etc. becoming too human or too intelligent or too powerful leading to "bad things" is modern-day mythology. It's the type of story we tell over and over again. From the Terminator movies to half the sci-fi books ever published we see it used. This is such a prevalent yet simple myth that it can be used for various purposes. Sometimes you get explorations of what it means to be human when intelligence can come in non-biological forms (as is the case with the Puppetmaster in Ghost in the Shell) and sometimes it serves as a plot device for a compltely unrelated message (Grace O'Connor's wacky plans in Macross Frontier). The former are interesting because of what AI brings to the table; the latter could work with almost anything replacing AI. It's a fine plot, but too often it's used as lazy writing by simply using the formula of "sentient robots = bad things" without explaining why that's the case.

So what about Sharon Apple? Well -- I have to say, I disagree with ghostlightining's interpretation. I don't see her as as simply a plot device. It's just not as simple as that, especially not in the context of the Macross universe.

Music and love are the leitmotifs of the Macross universe. You can't have a Macross series without singing. You can't have a Macross series where love and romantic triangles aren't a major plot point. And in almost all cases the singing reminds the us, and the various warring factions, of love and through that understanding. We've given culture back to the Zentradi through Minmay's songs, we've made entire islands bloom with life through song, we've even made space whales listen to our song.

Seriously, he is singing to fucking space whale. How fucking awesome is that?

Sharon Apple takes on these characteristics and twists them into something ugly. There's really very little to her aside from her being a singer and feeling love. She was made to do that, just that. And normally in Macross, love plus singing would be enough to save the world. However, Sharon is different because she's not human. She might feel emotion, but she doesn't act like any normal human being (If you think she does, I believe you might want to get your sociopathic ass checked). Despite her feeling love and pain and sadness, she's missing something essentially human, something that prevents her from going through the usual "song + love = understanding".

What I believe Sharon's missing is the ability to understand others--a theory of mind and empathy. Sure she can understand other people's simple desires, like Isamu's desire for a thrill, but she's not very good at the complex stuff. She simplifies Myung's complex feelings toward Isamu and Guld into "I love Isamu a bit more, so who cares about Guld". To Sharon this is a simple matter because she doesn't seem to take anyone's feelings into account; to the human Myung this decision is nearly impossible because she knows that whichever way she chooses someone will get hurt (including her). And her fulfillment of Isamu's "desires" hardly taking his actual feelings into account. He clearly doesn't want his thrill in the way she presents it, but she doesn't care.

In the Macross world, where we've always been told that singing about love will bring about understanding between groups, a singer with the kind of power Sharon has (her song is drugs) not having the ability to understand others is more meaningful than a simple plot point. In a world where love songs are an effective weapon, we need to remember that empathy and understanding are also important. Sharon Apple, the AI that knows only personal emotions, is here to remind us of that.

I'll leave you with my favourite scene from Macross Plus, while I go into a Sudafed and flu induced coma:


Learn Hexadecimal said...

You know, I'm not terribly keen on the Evil AI trope either, but you raise an interesting point about Sharon Apple. It's not inhumanity that's the problem; it's incomplete humanity. I like it.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe I missed this post. Google Reader owes me big time.

You certainly make a case for the nuances in Sharon Apple. I for one welcome indulgent meaning-making from the reading of the subject (especially if it's Macross).

Firstly, the awesome thing about Basara singing to the space whale isn't his singing, it's the freaking whale singing along with him. EPIC LULZ.

Sharon Apple does not love. The emotion 'chip' installed in her (illegally) gives her access to emotional needs. Note that she doesn't feel anger or jealousy or joy. She has the range only to experience desire and gratification. Her need to gratify her perception that Isamu needs to live on the edge, is a function of the desire/gratification dynamic. Othierwise, there's no real joy or happiness involved. Certainly there is no love.

So, AI = Bad. This continues with Grace who relates to music as programs to exploit others.

LostMarbles said...

I'm not going to argue the point of love too much because that's something that's entirely too difficult to pin down (I mean, what is love?--cue meme).

I do actually believe that Sharon feels. It might be a bit of a stretch, but the look of pure hurt and confusion that she gives as she dies makes it hard for me to believe that she's not feeling anything. She's also clearly stated to "feel" all the same things Myung feels like conflict, hurt, and IMO love. The way she expresses that is entirely fucked up and doesn't look like anything a functional adult would do to deal with these feelings.

The main difference between Myung, a human, and Sharon, and AI, is that Sharon takes these feeling and instead of being torn about fulfilling them without hurting anyone she ignores the autonomy of other people's minds and does what she wants and what she assumes they want. She doesn't see that there is a difference between what she wants and what other people want.