Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Capricology: Week 2 - The Soul of a Robot

As I mentioned last week, I'm participating in an online discussion of Caprica at ReligionDispatches (post about the Pilot Episode here). You can read the full online discussion of Caprica's episode 2 at ReligionDispatches (Warning: There are plot spoilers in the discussion). Here is a teaser and some excerpts from the discussion:
Capricology: The Soul of a Robot
Can a mechanical body have a personality? How about multiple personalities? Caprica asks these tried and true sci-fi questions, but then takes a leap into questions of terrorism—and sexual identity.
Salman Hameed:
That said I enjoyed the visual efforts to humanize a robot. So many times we have seen characters in films that are humans on the outside, but machines inside (for example, the Terminator series). You peel the skin only to find an emotionless machine. Often Sci-Fi (SyFy for the hip crowd) films add “eyes” to make it possible for us to empathize with a protagonist robot (for example, Wall-E). But Caprica uses Zoe interchangeably with the metallic robot to emphasize the humanity of an artificial intelligence (however much—since we know that Zoe is an avatar). We peel the metal of the robot and find an emotional Zoe underneath (or more accurately, an image of an avatar that is an identical copy of Zoe’s avatar). Furthermore, this robot has its own personal identity since its software (soul within the Caprican universe?) can only work with a particular body (though beware, souls can be transferred using the technology of Cold Souls). The robot, however, is also designed to kill—and thus it has another personality that is bound to clash with Zoe’s.
Diane Winston:

Who is Zoe? What is Zoe? Who or What was Zoe?

That’s the trinity (yes, Salman, it was a sledgehammer)—or, more accurately, the trifecta at the heart of “Rebirth,” this week’s episode of Caprica. Zoe’s identity was on many minds as we saw her conjured in the Cylon’s red-tinged memories, Ben Stark’s mementos, Lacy’s home movies, and Amanda’s final, desperate outburst. Even as the Zoe/Avatar/Cylon (ZAC) itself struggled with a new identity (“Do I look male?”) and old/new ways of being in the world (bite enemies, hug friends), she was seen for herself by one whose sight could be trusted. Did you catch the family dog snuggling contentedly at ZAC’s feet? Animals don’t lie; at least not on television. This was a come-to-Lassie moment.

What makes us human? And why do we assume that being human constitutes an intrinsic standard of humaneness, goodness, or authencity? Why in the last ten years, when the evidence of our collective inhumanity—from blowing up planes, to shooting civilians to using rape as a weapon of war—scars our days, has our nighttime entertainment focused on assaying forms of humanness. Was Tony Soprano human? Well maybe, but what about Al Swearengen? Okay, him too, but what about Dexter? Hmm—if he’s inside the tent, what about something that isn’t even a someone? We’ve seen humanoid Cylons, slinky terminators, and programmed “dolls” save our (“real”) butts more than once. Yet we’re ready to debate it all again as we watch a life form shapeshift (within its own consciousness and to our omnipotent gaze) from a clanging metal monster to a winsome teenager. (Did anyone have a problem with this? My 10-year-old deemed it “cool,” but my husband thought it lacked finesse. I liked it, but I’d vote for a new dress.)

Henry Jenkins:

The episode’s opening shots already hint at the relationship between media, memory, and self-perception as we get flickering glimpses of multiple consciousnesses being reborn in the new mechanical body, as we burst from static into images which are memories of Zoe’s life, of the virtual world her avatar inhabits, and even the memories of the robot as a war machine blasting away in the laboratory. Throughout the episode, it is suggested that these three kinds of memories coexist uneasily within this same body. Interestingly, Zoe sees herself as if she still occupied her old flesh even as the outside observer sees her as all tech. Her father doesn’t seem to care enough to even probe more deeply whether the machine carries any of his daughter’s memories, having pushed so hard last week to try to keep them alive. This inability to see the human memories and consciousness inside the machine body prefigures the human prejudice against the “toasters,” the Cylon war against humanity, and the new mutual understanding reached between at least some humans and Cylons over the course of Battlestar Galactica.

Read the full discussion here.

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