One interesting trope in AI science fiction is a customization process. The user (the human, of course, but let’s not mince words: use has always been the operative verb with regard to computers) answers a series of questions (often posed by the AI itself in a default setting,) in order to make the AI as compatible as possible. Usually, this process is awkward. The user feels embarrassed to tell even a computer program that they prefer, say, a snide female voice, or blondes, or to be called by a pet name. Sometimes, the user asks the AI what it prefers instead. Typically, the AI responds that it has no preferences but will choose anyway and the user feels satisfied in distancing themselves arbitrarily. This sequence fulfills a textual need: it introduces the reader to the AI in an efficient, objective manner. It also engages the part of the brain that wants to self-insert. It begs the question: what would you say? Would you want to choose? Who would you want it to be?
If you answered with the full name of an actual human already currently living on this planet, you probably have no problem processing this idea: a man in China, Ricky Ma, spent the equivalent of $50,000 designing, printing, and building a pretty functional android modeled after “a Hollywood actress” that pretty much everyone agrees is Scarlett Johansson. She can talk, bow, move, and make facial expressions. Really, none of her functionality is taking the spotlight (to my great disappointment/minimal surprise) because the idea of replicating another human’s face, or even using one as a model, for your personal robot project is unappealing to the general public. By unappealing, I mean repulsive. The Comment Section, traditionally inhabited only by mangy raccoons in trench coats and Sackville-Bagginses, decided this was definitely a great time to be racist and sexist, per their usual, but one lone voice among a thousand spit-or-swallow variety yuks accidentally said something interesting: “guy went and made himself a wife. I wonder if she’ll vote.” This commenter unwittingly brought up what will undoubtedly be one of the most difficult questions for humanity should we reach a point even close to singularity: does autonomy imply rights? It may not seem like the right time to ask. This instance predominantly illustrates The Internet condemning a designer as a pervert and a creep instead of acknowledging the accomplishment, which is understandable given we as a first-world, consuming society can really only comprehend sex robots as the endgame. But one day these will be THE questions to ask if indeed we are (and I believe we are, because I want to believe we are) moving towards a more technologically-integrated society. If the goal of bettering artificial intelligence technology is to match human capacity, for thinking, creating, interacting, being (short of literally living,) what arguments will arise against granting said creation the right to, say, use any money they earn for themselves, or keep a bank account? Do we then tax them? If we tax them shouldn’t they be represented? Can they unionize? What laws will apply to a creation that has programmed free will? Should we worry about robot rights when we can’t even figure out human rights half the time on this planet?
There is no great use in debating the hypothetical here, seeing as the Scarlett robot is far from meeting any of the singularity standards we can expect from a couple decades ahead of us. For now, empirically speaking, we have achieved a beautiful and somewhat functional human face and managed to reassure the public that yes, robots are scary, perverse, and probably intend to undermine your humanity, if not certainly your religion.
(As a sidebar, it may interest you to know that without explicit consent, if she can prove he used her as a model, Scarlett might be able to sue Ricky Ma. She holds a sort of copyright to her effigy, if we can look to wax museums as any indicator. So if you were creeped out for her sake, and rightfully so, you may take some cold comfort in knowing that some things are indeed still sacred.)