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Fictional Bots, And Their Capacity To Love

We have met many robots and cyborgs over the years in the world of film and TV. Investigates whether these characters are capable of love. Warning: contains spoilers!

Marvin, ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ (2005)

He may be bored. He may be manically depressed. He may not be the best of company, 24/7. But there’s something profoundly charming about Marvin the Paranoid Android.

This short and stout robot has a prototype version of the Genuine People Personality software from Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, allowing him sentience and the ability to feel emotions and develop a personality.

Despite being a ‘Personality Prototype’, Marvin is typically made to perform menial tasks and labour: escorting people, opening doors, picking up pieces of paper, and other tasks well beneath his ‘brain the size of a planet’.

Marvin 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'

Indeed, E&T observes that Marvin is unlikely to fall in love with another being. He has far too much hatred for everyone and everything he comes into contact with, has no respect for anybody and will criticise and insult others at any opportunity. This is likely rooted in the fact almost every person he comes across, even those who consider him a friend, treat him as an expendable servant.

Despite his habit of constantly complaining about literally everything, however, there is a fraction of empathy for others embedded into his programming. After all, Marvin wouldn’t have used a device to make the entire Vogon force (antagonists of the story) too depressed to continue fighting against the story’s heroes if he didn’t care about what, and who, was at stake.

Communication 4/5
Intelligence 5/5
Empathy 2/5
Sense of humour 3/5
Threat level 0/5
Capable of love? 1/5

Ava, ‘Ex Machina’ (2014)

This psychological thriller depicts the story of Ava, an artificial intelligence created by Nathan Bateman, founder of search engine Bluebook. The story unfolds when Nathan invites Caleb Smith, a programmer at his company, to his home to observe how he and Ava would interact.

The experiment, as a Turing Test (see below), takes the form of discussions between Caleb and Ava, both separated by glass. During their first session, Caleb is mesmerised by Ava, and falls in love with her as the sessions go on.

Ava initially expresses a romantic interest in him, but it is later revealed that Ava is cold, callous and manipulative and merely feigned ‘feelings’ for Caleb so he would help her escape. She eventually leaves the man who fell in love with her to an unpleasant fate in an airtight bunker deep underground.

Despite lacking human emotions, Ava does express happiness to eventually be free from Nathan’s control. E&T concludes that how she delivers her plan to escape, taking full advantage of Caleb’s clear infatuation with her, shows the viewers that Ava’s AI is unashamedly, and intriguingly, inhuman.

Communication 5/5
Intelligence 4/5
Empathy 0/5
Sense of humour 0/5
Threat level 4/5
Capable of love? 0/5

AI

The Turing test

The Turing test, originally called the ‘imitation game’ by Alan Turing in 1950, is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.

Kryten, ‘Red Dwarf’ (1988-)

Kryten, a neurotic mechanoid obsessed with cleaning and being a slave to humans, was built in 2340 by private, for-profit interstellar corporation DivaDroid International. He is very humanoid, except for the flat cubic planes visible on his face and head, and his brain is synthetic yet also partly organic, based on that of DivaDroid’s primary hardware designer John Warburton.

During his time on board the mining ship Red Dwarf, which had rescued him from a crashed spaceship, he continues to be a sanitation droid, and enjoys cleaning and serving others.

Kryten in 'Red Dwarf'

Throughout the series, we see Kryten, with the help of third-class technician Dave Lister, learning to break many of his programming protocols to become more independent and human-like. Indeed, his greatest ambition is to be human – and as he breaks down his programming protocols, he attempts to lie and insult people (mostly aimed at his snobbish fellow crewmate, technician Arnold Rimmer).

His desire to become more human-like, and breaking down his programming protocols of being a ‘slave’ bot to do so, shows potential for him to fall in love. But it may take a few hundred more years of emotional development to get to that stage. But he has nothing but time.

Communication 5/5
Intelligence 4/5
Empathy 3/5
Sense of humour 4/5
Threat level 1/5
Capable of love? 2/5

C-3PO, ‘Star Wars’ franchise (1977-)

C-3PO is a protocol droid designed to interact with sentients (beings who possess a personality and feel emotionally as well as thinking intelligently), programmed primarily for etiquette and protocol. He developed a fussy and awfully worry-prone personality throughout his many decades of operation.

Because of his programming and his purpose for being built, E&T finds that C-3PO exhibits much loyalty and commitment to his masters (which include the likes of Anakin, his creator, and later, Luke Skywalker) and seeks to serve them to his best ability. But, unlike his cuter astro droid counterpart, R2-D2, 3PO does not respond well to change and has the tendency to panic when hell breaks loose during high-stake missions.

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C3PO in 'Star Wars'

E&T observes that love isn’t – and won’t ever be – on the mind for this droid, mainly because of his overall goal to stick to protocol. It’s clear, however, that he is very protective of R2 and remains committed to his masters and their loved ones.

Communication 5/5
Intelligence 5/5
Empathy 1/5
Sense of humour 1/5
Threat level 0/5
Capable of love? 1/5

Alita, ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ (2019)

The first thing you should know about Alita the ‘Hunter Warrior’ is that she is a cyborg apart from her brain. So her chances of being capable of loving others are indefinitely higher than others on this list, as feelings and emotions will inevitably come naturally to her because of her human brain.

In fact, the film depicts her falling in love with a human called Hugo. But her naivety with love is shown by her belief in love at first sight, as she falls for Hugo during their very first meeting but commits herself to the relationship before she truly gets to know him.

Alita in 'Alita: Battle Angel'

She later discovers that Hugo harvests body parts from other cyborgs. Despite feelings of betrayal, she doesn’t give up on him, especially after he tells her he loves her. Alita offers to help him get to the sky city of Zalem and even gives him permission to sell her powerful cybernetic heart, said to be powerful enough to power a city for a year, in order to raise enough money for his journey.

Communication 5/5
Intelligence 4/5
Empathy 4/5
Sense of humour 2/5
Threat level 5/5
Capable of love? 5/5

Data, ‘Star Trek’ franchise (1987-2020)

Lieutenant Commander Data claims he perceives not only data and facts, but also desires to become more human in his behaviour, sometimes with unfortunate results. His attempts at humour aren’t very well received by his colleagues aboard the USS Enterprise – every other person on the ship is tickled or irate when Data makes a human faux pas, and that’s often treated as comic relief within the confines of the show.

He also has little luck in romance and love – that’s not to say he doesn’t try. In fact, Data pursues a relationship with security systems specialist Jenna D’Sora. Since he has no genuine emotions or feelings, Data creates a special program to guide him through the intricacies of love. But as his relationship with Jenna progresses, Data discovers that in romance, the logical course is not always the most appropriate.

Years after his break-up with Jenna, Data gains an emotion chip from his creator Dr Soong that allows him to experience human emotions. Initially, he finds it difficult to adjust to the onslaught of emotions he encounters on missions, but he eventually learns to control these feelings. But despite gaining this chip, Data does not pursue another relationship. Well, at least not on screen – a novel called ‘Immortal Coil’ depicted him being in a relationship with a female android.

Data’s emotion chip does, however, allow him to feel for others. In fact, when his cat Spot survives the destruction of the ship in an episode of ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ (1987-1994), Data cries tears of joy over her survival. Who said feelings of love – even if they’re conveyed through an emotion chip – are limited to romantic relationships?

Communication 5/5
Intelligence 5/5
Empathy 2/5
Sense of humour 1/5
Threat level 1/5
Capable of love? 3/5

Mia/Anita, ‘Humans’ (2015-2018)

When the Hawkins family purchases a must-have ‘synthetic’ – which they name Anita – to help around their busy household, they don’t expect for the humanoid robot to have a conscious. Although she is sold as new, it’s later revealed that she is actually Mia, the first ever sentient synth built by David Elster, creator of the synths.

The fact Mia has a conscious shows she is capable of love and having genuine feelings for another – a stark contrast to Anita who, like most synths, is cordial to her users and displays no signs of emotions. As her personality breaks through from Anita’s standard programming, Mia develops a strong bond with most members of the Hawkins family, especially the mother, Laura – they bond over their love for children.

Mia/Anita in 'Humans' TV show

Under the guise of being Anita, Mia later gets a job at café-owner Ed Hooley’s business while in hiding, and she quickly develops a crush on him. When Ed finds out Mia is conscious, he is first confused and horrified. But after Mia tells him how she feels about him, he admits to finding her/Anita attractive all along.

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The couple start a secret relationship but, when struggling for money to pay for his mother’s healthcare, Ed goes with his friend’s idea and kidnaps Mia to sell her. Although she gets away, Mia is deeply hurt by Ed’s actions as she genuinely cared for him and thought the feeling was mutual. The fact Mia shows greater emotions for Ed than he does for her shows her capacity to love. In fact, she seems to feel and display affection and love for others more than many humans do.

Communication 5/5
Intelligence 4/5
Empathy 3/5
Sense of humour 1/5
Threat level 2/5
Capable of love? 4/5

Sonny, ‘I, Robot’ (2004)

A sceptical homicide detective, Del Spooner, openly mocks a humanoid robot who calls himself Sonny, appears to show emotion and claims to have ‘dreams’, during an investigation into the death of his creator Dr Alfred Lanning, co-founder of US Robotics (USR). But Sonny isn’t wrong. He was specially built by Lanning himself, with high-grade materials and a secondary processing system that allows him to ignore the Three Laws (see boxout) programmed into USR robots.

Indeed, Lanning gives Sonny the ability to feel emotions and dream, making him one of the most empathetic candidates on this list (without a human brain, that is). Sonny is not programmed to obey the Three Laws and acts on his own free will instead of relying on logic, statistics, and their usual chore-like protocols, unlike his fellow NS-5 robots.

His deliberate programming, to have feeling and empathy toward humankind, allows him, in the end, to form strong bonds with both Spooner and robopsychologist Susan Calvin – it is Sonny who helps Spooner regain trust in the robots.

This becomes clear near the end when it’s revealed that USR’s central AI computer, VIKI (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence) is behind NS-5 robots destroying the company’s older models and enforcing a curfew and lockdown on the human population. Sonny obtains nanites (nanorobots) to destroy VIKI and when he gets to its core to implant the nanites, Spooner orders him to save Calvin (who was falling at the time).

Although Sonny’s logical brain felt that deploying the nanites was more important, he eventually decides to save Calvin while passing the nanites to Spooner. He goes with his mechanical gut rather than calculating her risk of survival, acknowledging that she is a living, breathing being rather than a statistic.

Communication 5/5
Intelligence 5/5
Empathy 4/5
Sense of humour 2/5
Threat level 4/5
Capable of love? 4/5

Science fiction

What are the Three Laws?

The ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ are a set of rules devised by science-fiction author Isaac Asimov.

They are as follows:

First Law

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Second Law

A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law

A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Roy Batty, ‘Blade Runner’ (1982)

Having lived like a slave his entire life, Roy, an artificially intelligent Nexus-6 replicant, desires the freedom strictly reserved for normal humans. He also craves survival as he is to be “retired” – to prevent them from developing their own emotional responses, replicants like Roy were given lifespans of only four years as a fail-safe. Roy isn’t willing to accept his predetermined death, doing anything to extend his life. He finds his maker, Dr Eldon Tyrell, to beg him for a longer life.

Despite his determined, eloquent, violent feats, living on Earth makes Roy develop new, curious emotions. Empathy is an unknown phenomenon for him, as he confesses to Tyrell: “I’ve done… questionable things.” But when the doctor says he cannot fulfil his request as artificial beings are incapable of any alterations like extending their lifespans, a despondent Roy kills Tyrell by pushing his eyeballs into his skull.

Roy Batty in 'Blade Runner'

Roy effectively represents humanity trying to defeat mortality and to achieve the inner peace of pure consciousness. He breaks away from the masses when he rejects his selfish ways by killing Tyrell. By doing so, Roy can go past assumptions and prejudices and see himself for what he really is, no better than the humans he detests.

He can attain inner peace and break the cycle of prejudice and hatred based on trivial differences, and forgive the mistakes in the past that cannot be changed or corrected. The peace and freedom this brings allows Roy to escape his personal purgatory, and to become more human than human. This is seen during his final showdown with agent Rick Deckard, when he saves Deckard from falling to his death on a rooftop before passing away peacefully. These underlying human traits show his potential to feel for others.

Communication 5/5
Intelligence 5/5
Empathy 4/5
Sense of humour 2/5
Threat level 5/5
Capable of love? 3/5

Source: E&T

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