AI in Fiction

Fiction is a humanistic lab for thought experiments. It may be a cliché to say that art imitates life (or in the case of science fiction: art precedes life), but fiction has a palpable impact on how society perceives and treats various groups in the real world.

There is a long history of literary and cinematic depictions of artificial general intelligence (AGI) in embodied and disembodied forms. In science fiction and speculative fiction, AI is usually shorthand for AGI, machine learning models that have a wide range of cognitive skills and surpass human capabilities. Frequently explored topics include sentient androids (or robots) and “what makes us human.”

In fiction, AI and humanity are often assumed to be two distinct entities, while AI, like prosthetic limbs, has become part of what it means to be human. One of the prevalent tropes is AI turning against or replacing humanity. Another involves mistreatment of artificial people since they are purportedly “not real.”

Both of these tropes are found in Ex Machina, a film about humanoids directed by Alex Garland in 2014. A white male inventor named Nathan creates a series of androids with varying levels of AI capabilities. All the androids are in sexually attractive female forms, and many are East Asian. 

Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) and Ava (Alicia Vikander) in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014)

The white humanoid, Ava, is shown to be more intelligent than other bots, with a large range of human emotions. With full language function, Ava is very articulate and can express herself through drawings as well. While Ava also obeys her creator, she is far less subservient; she does not do house chores. 

In contrast, the Japanese humanoid Kyoko is placed in a subservient role. Kyoko is not only designed to do house chores like a live-in maid, but she is also mute, without a language function. The scenes where Kyoko quietly makes sushi rolls, wipes the dinner table, and is scolded by Nathan depict the symbiotic relationship between racism and misogyny directed toward women of Asian descent.

There is another, equally disturbing aspect of racist misogyny: the stereotyping of East Asian women as untrustworthy, cunning “dragon ladies” or as femme fatales. Toward the end of the film, Kyoko rebels against Nathan and eventually kills him with her sashimi knife. Presenting Kyoko as the ultimate racial and gendered other, the film falls into the trap of techno-Orientalism, a tendency that combines technological fantasies and patronizing attitudes toward the “Orient,” an antiquated term for Asia.

Techno-Orientalism emerged in the 1980s, notably in Ridley Scott’s dystopian sci-fi film Blade Runner (1982). It is a trope in film and literature that presents Asian people as technologically advanced but emotionally immature. This trope presents a people as both robotic (not quite human) and productive. It is a strong thread in imaginations of AI.

An example of the contrarian stereotypes is the multi-story-high digital poster of a Japanese geisha in Blade Runner. Asian women, in this instance, are depicted as both emotionally and culturally primitive but technologically advanced; they often need to be rescued by white men.

Robotic images of Asian women, such as Kyoko in Ex Machina, contribute to what David Morely and Kevin Robins call “techno-Orientalism.” The concept emerged with the Japanese economic boom in the 1980s, which caused “Japan panic” in the West. Detractors believed that Japan’s “Samurai Capitalism” was “calling Western modernity into question and claiming the franchise on the future.”

In Rupert Sanders’s film Ghost in the Shell (2017), white protagonists navigate futuristic urban spaces that are littered with references to pan-East-Asian script, architecture, and food. Another example is Kyoko in Ex Machina, who is an advanced AI bot but cannot talk or emote since she is designed to be intellectually primitive.

 

Further Reading

Kakoudaki, Despina. Anatomy of a Robot: Literature, Cinema, and the Cultural Work of Artificial People. Rutgers University Press, 2014.

Tenen, Dennis. Literary Theory for Robots. W.W. Norton, 2024.