Can machines develop emotions? Are they capable of love? What separates man from machine? These are all hotly contested questions of futurism and science fiction, yet to enjoy the Disney film Wall-E, you sort of have to let these questions fall to the wayside.
Wall-E is perhaps the only family post-apocalyptic film ever created, taking place at a time in which the Earth has been mangled and made toxic, no longer with any ability to sustain life. Humanity, of course, leaves on a galactic cruise, waiting in outer space for machines to clean up the mess left on the planet. As the cleanup takes longer than expected, humanity continues to tour the galaxy, with subsequent generations becoming fatter and lazier, forgetting what typical 21st-century human life is actually like.
While the film is adorable, it hits too close to home in its sad, satirical forecast. Is it just a matter of time until we become pod people, losing our bone structure and becoming so fat and weak that we are rendered unable to move ourselves? I guess this is neither here nor there for the purposes of this discussion, which will focus on the portrayal of the film’s lead characters, Wall-E and Eve. And for the purposes of this discussion, we do away with our doing-away with the aforementioned questions. This isn’t about enjoying the film; it’s about having a good, weird science fiction discussion. And believe me, it’s going to get weird and un-family friendly pretty quickly.
When considering these robots, we need to first approach a basic question: How many “Wall-Es” are there on planet Earth in this post-apocalyptic society? As the one and only Wall-E present in the film seems to possess a very human personality, do other, similar robots have human properties as well? Likewise, we know there are many Eve robots, so do they have human properties as well? Wall-E’s physical similarity to humans is obvious, with two eyes, arms, fingers, a torso, and rollers for legs and feet. He even lives in an earthly bachelor pad, with strung up lights, a television, and a Rubiks cube. His sonic properties complete his human resemblance, with his voice, sounding strikingly similar to R2-D2 from Star Wars at times. He can say his own name in English, and after meeting Eve, he quickly learns how to say her name as well. (But is Eve a “her”? We’ll get to this question shortly.) But much like R2-D2, Wall-E is able to express a wide range of emotions, just with the use of sounds. His tones clearly convey fear, excitement, sorrow, and joy, all without substantial use of spoken English. Eve operates in a very similar way.
But all of this is surface-level stuff. How is it that their emotions work? Love is ultimately expressed through these simple tones, and with the combination of iconic visuals (such as human hand-holding), its impossible to misread what’s happening on screen. There is also kissing, as symbolized by the robots touching their faces together with a zap and a spark. Are a zap and a spark what a robot kiss would be like? Consider K.W. Jeter’s Noir, in which French kissing a robot pretty much fries your brain, so it’s a definite possibility. It seems as though sharing the electrons from your circuit may be analogous to sharing saliva. But do robots even need to kiss? Is there another, perhaps more realistic way to convey robot affection? Reading Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, it seems as though there may not be a way for us to know what a more “realistic” way to convey this affection might be. (This also assumes at a fundamental level that robotic beings are capable of affection.) But let’s take this to the next level: Should robots be able to have sex? What will Wall-E and Eve do if they want to take their relationship to the next level?
As I asked in EDP’s critical approaches class, do robots need the process of intercourse? The only argument I can see to support answering “yes” is the bonding between two beings that takes place during sex. Otherwise, there seems to be no reason for robots to go through the strenuous work, as this isn’t how new robots are created or how orgasm is achieved. Why not just hit your orgasm button to experience the technological process of climax?
Along those lines, what might a true robot orgasm sound like? Is robot climax even necessary? Again, this returns us to the question of how like humans robots are, can be, or will be. Wall-E and Eve certainly don’t have genitalia, and the only cues we have to their sexuality is implied through vocal tonality and the female name “Eve.”
Let us briefly turn our attention to the spaceship with the humans cruising through the galaxy. If humans have become so lazy and distracted by immediate, in-your-face entertainment, how is the species still going? Is there a masturbation robot that takes semen from men and combines samples with eggs from women to create babies, or is there just a lot of really fat, gelatinous sex being had off-screen? Either way, it sounds dangerous.
Wall-E also begins to ask questions about the morality of robots, although it does it in a muddled fashion. The captain’s robotic assistant certainly resembles HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the film also borrows the main theme from 2001 when the captain decides to deactivate the computer. The lobotomizing process is also portrayed in much the same way, with the computer’s voice dropping in frequency before becoming silent. Why is it that the assistant computer wants to avoid returning to Earth, yet the ship automatically returns to Earth once the plant is inserted into the appropriate portal within the ship? Should we interpret the captain’s robotic assistant’s voice as sinister? After all, this is the only thing that seems to set this robot apart from the other robots aboard the ship.