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The Replacements: AI in the Movies

The Replacements: AI in the Movies

“You’re the company I waited so long for,” Dr. Rosetta Stone (Tilda Swinton) says to her three Self Replicating Automatons in Teknolust (2002), artist Lynn Hershman Leeson’s sci-fi farce about a scientist’s well-meaning pursuit of artificial life. Stone’s color-coded clones Ruby, Olive, and Marine (also played by Swinton) are confidants not only to their creator, but also to the online lonelyhearts who “e-dream” with them in lieu of actual human companionship. Immaculately conceived from Stone’s DNA, the SRAs nevertheless require regular helpings of Y chromosome to survive. So Dr. Stone plays old Hollywood movies for Ruby in her chambers in order to train her in the art of seduction. Ruby then makes sorties from the lab to hunt for semen from willing suitors, which she brings back to her sisters, who quaintly ingest it in the form of tea. Brimming with a digital sheen and commercial-worthy flat lighting by cinematographer Hiro Narita, Teknolust holds a gently ironic embrace of techno-optimism about (pro)creativity and the feminist possibilities for artificial intelligence.

Hershman Leeson’s playful optimism stands in stark contrast to the anxious, even despairing tone with which cinema has long treated AI. As early as the silent era, it was depicted as a destabilizing source of exploitable labor, sexual pleasure, and existential threat: Maria, the Maschinenmensch described as a “worker of the future” in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), assumes the place of a real woman and stirs up a host of erotic and murderous impulses among the laboring class. As computing made significant advances in the latter part of the twentieth century and increasingly intruded upon every aspect of contemporary life, AI became science fiction’s shorthand for labor-saving and pleasure-giving technology run amok, as in Blade Runner, The Matrix, Avengers: Age of Ultron . . . even M3gan.

Top of page: Teknolust; above: Demon Seed
Electric Dreams
Johnny Mnemonic

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