Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Artificial Intelligence and Love

For the longest time I’ve had a collection of thoughts associated with Spielberg’s movie A.I. rolling around in the back of my mind. I thought I’d take a moment to try and sort them out in print and see if they make sense.

There are certain producers, like Spielberg, for whom motion picture creation is not just a way of making a living, earning a fortune or acquiring fame. It is my personal belief that they use their movies to explore some basic human issue, framing it in the Wild West, the distance future or occasionally in the contemporary present. When I view a movie like A.I. I ask myself: What was the producer trying to accomplish beyond the obvious entertainment goals.

In my humble opinion, in the movie A.I. Spielberg wanted to explore one of life’s most fundamental mysteries – the meaning of love? The situation where a bereaved mother finds solace in loving an artificial (robotic) but life-like child and remarkably an artificial child is somehow “programmed” to love his adopting parent, sets the scene for a multifaceted investigation into the essence of love.

Very early in the movie it is made clear that by “love” the protagonists did not mean the imitation of love but the inner feelings of attachment.
In addition to the experience of learning to love her adopted robotic child, the mother faces a dilemma when her previously catatonic son is revived and returned healed to his family. The natural child’s return sparks a struggle, the ultimate question of sibling rivalry, of two children competing for a parent’s love. Inherent in this struggle is the sense that the ‘competitor’ can possibly replace you. Of course in the movie A.I. that is what the robotic child did in essence. He replaced the natural child while he lay catatonic in some form of cybernetic suspension.

As in any fable, the “test” is where the true nature of the protagonists is discovered. In Spielberg’s movie the first ‘test’ is the mother’s decision to return her robotic child back to the factory when the sibling rivalry between him and her natural son spirals out of control. Unable to face the irrevocable destruction of the ‘child’, she instead releases him out in the wilds.

For me the question of what this woman feels for a robotic child brings into question the love of a mother for any child. Perhaps it can be said that more than the child yearns for his mother’s love, a mother has a need to love her child. In the movie, the mother, even when faced with the obvious artificialness of her ‘adopted child’ still feels a need to-be-there for him, and comfort him. In Jewish thought there is a concept that “the hearts follow the actions”. Perhaps in this case, the “love” of the mother for her “adopted child” could be explained, as the emotions fostered through the actions of “mothering”, coupled with her own innate need to have a child to love. In a similar fashion I keep thinking of Stephen Covey’s statement that the word “love” is a verb! Love is a process, an action not a state of mind, or at least a state of mind created as a result of the actions of loving another.

What truly captured my fascination was the artificial child’s struggle to cope with his beloved mother’s rejection, and his search to rectify the imperfection that keeps them apart. Spielberg shamelessly rewrites a Pinocchio of the 22nd century.

The critical aspect of the child’s sense of feeling loved was connected to his perception of himself as special or unique. When he comes face-to-face with other copies of his model in the robot factory, his sense of self is obviously threatened and the premise that he is loved because he is ‘himself’ and cannot be replaced is clearly challenged.

Another aspect of the child’s love of his mother (note the father is not an object of affection for the robotic child) is that it is transcendent. True, every child has a deep inherent need to feel loved, and perhaps also need to love in return. None-the-less there was something almost magical (something that transcends reason and experience) in the attachment the robotic child felt for his lost parent. This attachment, due to the nature of robots, also transcended the lifetime of his mother and probably all and any descendents she might have had.

What do we mean when we say we love someone? What does it mean to feel loved by someone? In some small way I felt that A.I. hinted at possible answers.
When we love someone, we revere the characteristics about him or her that make them who they are! We love those aspects of their personality that make them special. When we feel loved by another, that feeling is generally accompanied by a sense of feeling special. Our loved ones make us feel appreciated for who we are and in that sense, irreplaceable.

On a personal level I must admit that I connected to the story on a more visceral level. My entire childhood I sought a father’s love from a man who was incapable of expressing the love he obviously felt for his only male child. My entire childhood, and into much of my adulthood, I kept looking for the imperfection I needed to correct in myself in order to earn the open expression of that man’s appreciation and affection. In the end, it was only long after his death that I eventually arrived at an appreciation of the deep love he always felt, and expressed in his own unpretentious manner. In that sense, perhaps love really does transcend the material vehicles of its expression.