At the beginning of summer, Japanese telecommunications company SoftBank started selling their humanoid robot, Pepper. With an adorable name comes an adorable purpose: To make people happy. The robot can read your voice and face, and, armed with this information, can change its behavior based on your own.
Oh, also, you’re not supposed to have sex with it.
SoftBank included this little stipulation in Pepper’s user agreement, claiming that there could possibly be punitive penalties if you get frisky with your robot friend. Why SoftBank would deliver this warning might be a little astounding, or even hilarious, to most people. But deep in the sewers of your mind, you knew it was coming. I mean, sex dolls are a thing.
Which is why it’s kind of freaky to think about how prescient the movie Ex Machina is. Ex Machina premiered in America earlier this year, before the sale of Pepper robots, at South By Southwest to rave reviews. The film follows the story of a programmer and his interactions with a pretty AI android named Ava. It’s very cerebral, and lots of questions are raised, like what does it mean to be human, to have free will. And, in a way, what happens when you treat women (specifically robot women) like sex toys.
I won’t spoil anything, because to me, one of the most impressive aspects of this movie occurred before the movie even started, when the team behind Ex Machina was trying to get the word out to festival-goers about its premiere. Essentially, they created a faux Tinder profile for Ava, with her profile pictures being that of the actress behind the machine, Alicia Vikander. There are several guys who go to SXSW, traveling from far and wide so they can catch up on the latest in tech, gaming, indie films, and music. They’re also, apparently, horny and eager to swipe.
Matching with Ava led to a conversation with the bot, where she would ask questions like “Have you ever been in love?” or “What makes you human?” – questions that mirror Ava’s curiosity in the film. If you progress far enough, you’d be led to her Instagram account, which only consisted of movie stills and short trailers. In other words: You got duped, you horndog.
It’s an incredible confluence of medium and message. Tinder is an app that, let’s face it, is best-suited for facilitating a quick doinking after swiping through a carefully curated gallery of six images. Romance, some might call it. Ex Machina explores what happens when an egotistical genius designs a sentient being that could easily end up being his personal pleasure slave. Technology, sexuality, human connection…it’s easy to imagine the amount of thinkpieces written on these subjects based on these two products. If you took away their titles, you might not even be able to tell the difference between app and film.
Was it just coincidence that Tinder and Ex Machina fit together so well that they created the perfect marketing campaign? Maybe. But maybe it’s also possible that you can find these winning combinations for any kind of product if you search hard enough and think critically about the themes, the story, surrounding your creation. But stay away from the freaky stuff.