More than 30 years later, however, multimedia artist Lynn Hershman Leeson came to a different conclusion when she set out to examine questions of virtual consciousness and desire by creating her own chatbot, Agent Ruby. Leeson wanted to create an interactive program which would collect information from users around the world, developing and functioning as a result of human input. But when Leeson set out to make Agent Ruby, “no one knew what [she] was talking about,” so she made a film—2002’s Teknolust—to explain. In the film, Tilda Swinton plays Ruby, a female cyborg who falls in love with and is impregnated by a human man. As Leeson explained in an interview:
I see that where we are in culture, in society, maybe in evolution, is that we’re physical beings. And we’re reaching through screens to kind of take out the information that’s inside of a virtual space and bring it back towards our physicality. There are people who believe that the screens have superior intelligence, and their own intelligence, and their own will, which is, in a sense, what Teknolust was about. And it’s the characters within the screen that are reaching towards us and bringing us into them so that eventually we’ll all be one unit.
Many of Her’s themes can be traced back to Teknolust and Leeson’s work; both Jonze’s film and Leeson’s on “female” artificial intelligence ask whether it can feel arousal or love, and, showing the influence of both Eliza and Agent Ruby, Samantha both acts as a sort of therapist. She helps Theodore sort out his life, and she displays consciousness and free will.
It bears mentioning, of course, that there are many examples of “male” artificial intelligence programs in pop culture—like HAL 3000, C-3PO, and the bots in Iron Man (J.A.R.V.I.S.) and last year’s Prometheus (David), to name a few. But male artificial intelligence programs are more often portrayed as machines built for disseminating knowledge; they generally don’t attempt to imitate human life or fill emotionally supportive human interpersonal relationship roles—such as romantic partner, spouse, or parent. In other words, they are prized for being more than human rather than for being the ultimate human, and even when the programs display some sort of consciousness, or imitation of it, they are far from being objects (or subjects) of desire.
There may be an underlying reason for this tendency to portray caring, concerned AI programs as female. As Robin James, a University of North Carolina, Charlotte associate professor and Cyborgology contributor, recently pointed out, technology now aids in many of the tasks once performed mainly by women: scheduling, reminding, diagnosing, helping, etc. Though many of these tasks haven’t lost their association with femininity, a re-branding is beginning to take place: “Just think about the ways personal computers and smartphones re-gendered and re-classed secretarial labor,” James writes. “Typing isn’t feminized and classed in the way it once was (my mom’s boss’s wife still won’t type her own emails, because typing is for secretaries, not bourgeois housewives). Typing is universal, at least among the educated middle- and upper-classes.”