A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a meditation on the limitless soul-crushing void at the center of the human condition, and what great lengths we might reach to in order to fill it. That is what fascinates me so much about this film as opposed to other robot movies. It presupposes that “I think, therefore I am” and then asks the logical follow up question “What the hell am I supposed to do now?” Unlike similar A.I. characters in cinema, such as Ex Machina’s Ava, 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Hal, or Rick in Blade Runner, David, the protagonist of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, wastes no time asking any questions about the definition of “being alive”, instead concentrating on an effort to get at bigger questions.
This mirrors real life; our parents screwed us into existence, and now, whatever definition of existence you subscribe to, we’re living it. We need no bigger explanation than that for ourselves to start searching for meaning, and neither does the film. Therefore, I will not be questioning the definition of “life” either. You know what life is, just as you know what the difference between one and two is; it’s inherently understood, and much easier to learn addition without questioning it.
All this is simply to say that I am not talking about this film specifically to tackle the question of artificial intelligence, as the movie’s title may fool you into thinking, but rather using A.I. as a means to discuss purpose in life. It sure is simpler than looking at screwed-up humans with all their complications and complexities.
The movie starts with an explanation that in the future the polar ice caps are melting, pregnancy is regulated, and robots, dubbed here as mechas, are common. We cut to a Dr. Hobby, a scientist proposing the creation of a robot with actual emotion. He wants to create an artificial intelligence that can actually feel, specifically, the emotion of love. We then meet Monica, a woman whose child, Martin, is in a cryogenic freeze until a cure can be found for his disease. She and her husband are then given an artificial child whose name is David. Monica takes care of him like your typical mother, reading him the story of Pinocchio and tucking him into bed. She gives him Teddy, a robotic plush bear that used to belong to Martin. Then, miraculously, Martin is cured of his disease and comes back home. Martin jealously taunts David into doing concerning things so that his parents no longer trust the robot. Monica drives to take David to be decommissioned and destroyed but just doesn’t have the heart to do so. Instead she abandons him in the forest with only Teddy, much to his dismay.
David remembers the story of Pinocchio and decides that to win back Monica’s love he must find the Blue Fairy to turn him into a real boy. On his journey he barely escapes a circus that destroys mechas for fun, along with Gigalo Joe, a robotic prostitute. Joe helps him to get to Dr. Know, a holographic search engine that tells David he will find the Blue Fairy in Manhattan, which is submerged in water due to the aforementioned global warming. There David finds Dr. Hobby, his creator, and realizes that he is but one of many mechas created without any unique qualities. Realizing his own lack of uniqueness, David tries to throw himself into Manhattan’s waters, only to catch a glimpse of something he thinks is the Blue Fairy. He and Teddy go deeper underwater and discover a statue of a blue fairy in a submerged Coney Island. David repeatedly asks the statue to turn him into a real boy until he stops moving.
2000 years later, advanced mechas discover a frozen David and reboot him, explaining to him that he cannot be made into a real boy, but that they can give him one last day with a clone of Monica, created through a strand of hair that Teddy kept. And so, he spends one final day as her child, being played with, comforted, and cared for. As Monica drifts to sleep, she tells him she has always loved him, and they both die together.
Let us now pause the movie, take a breath, and search for the meaning of life.
The first theory that I can cover here is altruism; the belief that one should live their life in service of others in order to give your own life meaning. This doesn’t mean that your answers must be without self-motivation; on the contrary, Aristotle would strongly disagree with that idea.
“…altruistic acts need not involve self-sacrifice, and they remain altruistic even when they are performed from a mixture of motives, some of which are self-interested. For Aristotle, altruism should always be accompanied by self-interested motives. His system of practical thought could be dismissed out of hand if one begins with the assumption that moral motivation must be purely altruistic, free from all taint of self-regard. Otherwise, it would not count as moral.”Nancy Sherman, “Aristotle on Friendship and the Shared Life”
Thus, we can understand that altruism from this perspective is motivating yourself to do good for others by realizing that your life has more meaning by that service. This is all well and good, but the ethics get muddier when you start to think about prioritization of who gets what kind of help. There are always limited resources, so do we give them to the starving woman in a far-off country, or the disabled man here at home? What happens when you have to choose between saving the president or your child?
Dr. Asma discusses this very thing in his essay “The Myth of Universal Love”. He contends that loyalty to those closest to you is in fact more honorable than loyalty to the greater good of humanity at large. “my case for small-circle care dovetails nicely with the commonly agreed upon crucial ingredient in human happiness, namely, strong social bonds. A recent Niagara of longitudinal happiness studies all confirm that the most important element in a good life (eudaimonia) is close family and friendship ties — ties that bind. These are not digital Facebook friends nor are they needy faraway strangers, but robust proximate relationships that you can count on one or two hands — and these bonds are created and sustained by the very finite resource of emotional care that I’ve outlined.” Combining these perspectives creates a new one, that of the loyal altruist, living his life in service of his close loved ones, not for its own sake, but in order to find fulfillment and meaning.
I find this theory shaky at best, and dangerous at worse. Benefitting others in order to benefit oneself seems like a roundabout way of coming to the same self-serving purpose. Is life itself so selfish? If we are looking for an answer to our lives why must it all come back to personal fulfillment? That isn’t our original question. We’re searching for life’s meaning, not the best way to be happy. Even stronger an argument against altruism of this kind is that, if it all comes back to personal fulfillment anyway, why must we go by such an indirect route to get that fulfillment when instead we could just attack our personal voids head on with selfish acts? What makes serving others a “better” way of doing that if, at a base level, we are all still just in it for our own interests?
Another theory towards what our life’s ultimate purpose should be is a solely self-servicing one. This is egoism, which is a system of beliefs centered around the idea that we should only exist to serve our own needs, wants, and desires. Why should we even try to make others happy, when it would be much easier for every man to fend for himself?
Egoists in fact believe that suppressing those selfish urges is the truest evil. Altruism is seen in this light as an unnecessary burden that just adds more resentment into the world rather than allowing what man is naturally inclined to do to occur. Ayn Rand, a philosopher famous for writing about objectivism and egoism, implies that those who do not attempt to give egoism a shot are cowardly, and those who are altruistic have forced mankind into something very unlike its true self.
“Observe what this beneficiary-criterion of morality does to a man’s life. The first thing he learns is that morality is his enemy; he has nothing to gain from it, he can only lose; self-inflicted loss, self-inflicted pain and the gray, debilitating pall of an incomprehensible duty is all that he can expect. He may hope that others might occasionally sacrifice themselves for his benefit, as he grudgingly sacrifices himself for theirs, but he knows that the relationship will bring mutual resentment, not pleasure and that, morally, their pursuit of values will be like an exchange of unwanted, unchosen Christmas presents, which neither is morally permitted to buy for himself.”Ayn Rand, “Virtue of Selfishness: a New Concept of Egoism”
If this is sincerely Rand’s philosophy, then I suppose she’d be happy to know I fulfilled my own personal happiness by searching for book on Google and reading a pdf instead of spending my precious money on it, which would have been a “self-inflicted loss”.
Putting aside this personal note, I hope the reader also sees the flaw in this thinking by having lived a life where you have tried this at one point. Hollow is the victory won when it is only for yourself. You can spend your whole life trying to reach the most supreme version of happiness that you can for yourself, but it never truly makes you overcome the sadness we all feel in our soul. Additionally, does this mean that some persons who suffer from depression can never have a fulfilling life? What about those who are disabled in some way, unable to live without other’s assistance? Should they then die if no other people’s happiness happens to include their care? Vonnegut’s famous “Euphio Question” comes into play here: suppose you could just press a button and achieve whole happiness. Life would stop. Purpose, itself, would stop. Now, I acknowledge that this is the weakest of my arguments, but I’m tired, and my need for personal fulfillment compels me to just finish editing this darn article.
Re-enter A.I. Artificial Intelligence. David thinks he has his life figured out. He has only one motivation: to be with Monica. This may on the surface seem altruistic, as it comes from Monica’s own desire to have some sort of connection with a son that she is missing out on without Martin. But when Martin comes back, David continues to need Monica, to wish to be with her, and to go to incredible lengths to try to do so. This is egoism; he doesn’t want to help Monica anymore, although it may seem that his creators wanted him to do so (we’ll get to him in a second). Instead, he exists to show what he thinks of as “love”. A selfish love however, one that forces Monica into one role, as his mother.
This is best illustrated in the ending scene, where David is reunited with his mother for one last day. After thousands of years of waiting, he finally got to be with her, on his terms. Only he knows she won’t last, and he knows she’s not even entirely real. This brings to mind for the Christopher Nolan’s Inception, where a dream version of the wife of Leonardo Dicaprio’s character Cobb pleads with him to continue dreaming with her, only for him to acknowledge she isn’t real because she has lost all the complexity of both her perfections and imperfections. Unlike Cobb, David doesn’t care that he isn’t interacting with the whole of Monica, but rather that he is fooled into thinking that. He’s designed only for this, and yet it is a paper trophy that leads to his immediate death.
When we’re kids, we tend to think like this. We don’t know what life is, but we can’t wait to find out. Either way, we’re pretty sure someone has the answer, probably a parental figure. David is an example of what would happen if we never got to grow out of that phase. If we were eternally ignorant to the world, we could find happiness, but only in hollowness.
David’s creator, Professor Hobby, is also an interesting figure to examine, for you may have been asking where God has been through this essay. When David encounters him, Professor Hobby actually straightforwardly tells him that he’s fulfilled his purpose. He tells him that he’s a big success story, the most real robot he’s ever created. And then David, when left alone, leaves, and tries to end himself. This illustrates to me the ridiculousness of trying to fulfill one’s own desires as the natural end-all-be-all answer to life. If you are pushed by the desires of other, it is a temporary victory. You either have to die while living off of the height of your achievement or realize that there’s no purpose in the end at all and surrender to the void.
An engine, given sentience, might think that its purpose is to burn gasoline.
I think this is the problem that David has here. He thinks that his ultimate purpose was to be attached to Monica, when in reality it was to serve Monica. To help her get through the loss of her child, and later to be a good helper to Martin. Oddly, the closest example of someone who actually fulfills an altruistic meaningful life in A.I. is Gigalo Joe, who serves other people even to his detriment, as long as he can make them comfortable. Even David is made more comfortable by his presence, since his personality changes from that of a passionate but gentle lover to the demeanor of a more cartoony, fairy tale-ish character.
Personally, I also find myself wanting to burn gasoline to fill my void. It feels great to have a full tank to go through but after a while of running the engine without going anywhere it starts to wear on it. I don’t know if that’s true; I don’t know much about cars, but it’s definitely true of life. I have been acting very egoistic lately, and it’s starting to really hurt knowing that I can’t find happiness in that.
So have we discovered the true meaning of life here? Not even close. But as Edison would say, we found two theories that don’t work, now we just have to find one that does. In my personal opinion as a Christian, the meaning of life can be found in service of God. I don’t claim that this will give you ultimate happiness at all, but a wholly separate feeling: contentment. Contentment isn’t the purpose for following Christian beliefs, but it works as the fuel to keep us moving forward into the life that comes next, which is full of more meaning than David could understand.