Recently at the ancient Kodaiji Temple in Kyoto, monks gathered to introduce a new version of an old deity: Mindar, an android embodying Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. Standing over six feet tall, most of her body the aluminum skeleton of a robot, bolts and rivets all on view, Mindar is honest about her technological nature. Her silicone cranium is open to expose the sleek minimal wires within, but beneath the almost coronal curve of metal, her face is benevolent, androgynous.
The androgyny is deliberate: Mindar is intended to be whom the viewer or worshiper needs her to be. The simplicity of her facial features, the blank spaces between her metallic components, welcome the viewer to fill in what is left out. She is in a way a post-modern text, infinitely differentiated in relation to infinite possible relations with infinite possible viewers.
The intention of the temple’s administrator Tensho Goto was to design a model of a deity that would speak to the imagination of a newer generation. Mindar may be revolutionary, but this approach to religious art is not: throughout history, from one civilization to the next, human beings are always crafting religious art according to the dominant cultural trends of their day. Japan stands at the forefront of our rising global fascination with robotics, so it makes sense that they should debut the world’s first robot-god.
To design Mindar, Goto enlisted Hirosho Ishiguro, head of the department of robotics at Osaka University and world-famous pioneer in the field of robotics. Ishiguro is not simply an inventor. He is a social psychologist, an artist, a maestro. He is obsessed, in a way that is unsettling to those of us who prefer to know things only in passing, grazing our fingers over them lightly. It’s especially unsettling when the area of reality being explored so minutely is the “uncanny valley” between human and android, between ourselves and our replicas.
A Very Different Type of Humanoid
I was familiar with Ishiguro before I read about his involvement in the creation of the world’s first robotic deity. I first saw his name while I was doing research on a very different type of humanoid: the sex robot.
Reading about sex robots and the people (usually men) who love them was initially a feminist project. As a literary scholar and angry middle-aged woman in the age of #MeToo, I am acutely aware that throughout history, in every mythic and literary canon, men have shown a marked preference for women who are controllable, passive, imaginary, statues, even corpses. Pygmalion is obsessed with his own creation. Beatrice, the ideal woman of western literature, is only ideal because she is dead. Hermione becomes a statue. Snow White, in the original folk story recorded by the Brothers Grimm, is not simply sleeping. She is a cadaver, in a beautiful glass coffin. (Also, she’s about seven years old.)
The beautiful dead girl, the marble woman, can’t talk back or criticize. She can’t consent, either. The anxiety of the male who asks “can I even talk to women anymore?” is washed away. No need to talk. No need even to understand non-verbal cues. She is a tabula rasa, and you can write your own desire on her, in whatever language you like.
“What if men become so obsessed with sex robots, they just end up addicted to them, shagging away in their basements, and women can take charge of the world?” That was the question that came up when I was discussing the topic with my sister, also a literary scholar. And out of this “what if,” a novel plot was born.
Once my social media friends found out I was writing a novel about sex robots, I began to be inundated with relevant information. Any time anyone found an article about robots, androids, human/android relations, sex toys, or sex dolls, they sent it to me. My news feed has definitely become more interesting (as well as NSFW).
That’s how I first discovered Ishiguro. I was prepared to be angry at this man who makes replicas of women, whose first “convincing” android was a replica of his own small daughter. It made me angry to think about the proximity of a small child to a tech world that caters to male sexual desire, but I was also strangely moved by his description of the process. How he and his wife slathered a thick paste over their daughter’s face to get an exact mold. They told her that when the process was over, she could eat anything she liked. When it was done, they gave her several Hello Kitty dolls.
According to Alex Mar’s interview with Ishiguro in Wired, his daughter cried, all the same. “To this day, they’ve never spoken about the incident.”
A few years later, Ishiguro showcased his first adult-sized android, not a sex doll, but a replica of a popular news actor. She can lip sync, and move a little.
But Ishiguro’s ultimate scientific experiment was to make a replica of himself. I say “scientific” because he intended the project as an opportunity to engage scientifically with the interplay between human and the replica-self, to observe data from a professional standpoint.
What he had not bargained for was the transience of a replication, when the human ages and the android does not.
He finds himself accommodating his android, measuring himself against it, being defined by it, his worth determined by it. In this way, his android makes him both painfully conscious of his aging body and more physically confident than he’s ever been.
Ishiguro is multiple myths simultaneously. With his female androids, he is Pygmalion, bringing his Galatea to life. But with his own replica, he is Narcissus, staring into his reflection for hours. Unlike Narcissus, of course, Ishiguro is conscious of the situation he has created, but he’s set an unexpected trap for himself through his image.
I’d already though of Pygmalion, but before I got to Narcissus I would have thought of another, more recent story: The Picture of Dorian Grey. If only Dorian had been the one to age beside his ageless portrait. This made Ishiguro’s unsettling project seem strangely like a spiritual exercise, a memento mori, an alternative to the traditional skull on the monk’s desk.
Replicating ourselves, making “graven images” that capture an instant of our being and fix it in timelessness, means holding out this challenge to ourselves: to accept that we are in time, to relinquish our need to possess our ever-shifting bodies, to silence the swirl of our cells and molecules. It reminded me of Sylvia Plath’s poem in which the woman goes every day to the mirror:
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
If you live side by side with an android replica of yourself, how soon is it before you see the changes take place? For Ishiguro, the gap between Self and Replica meant losing the facsimile aspect of his experiment in interaction. Initially he began making new replicas to match the most recent version of his face, but then he switched tactics, and decided, instead of making an android to keep up with himself, he would keep up with his android. This meant laser treatments, diet, and exercise. Reading about this, I sense the pathos of the experiment, and the way the Dorian Grey virus gets at us from other ways around.
It gets at me, too.
Looking in the mirror after midnight, I find myself murmuring, “get used to the old witch-woman that lives there.” I imagine an android version of myself, sleek silicon. Ishiguro could have made her back in 2006, maybe, when I was younger, before the lines around my mouth and the bags under my eyes appeared. Even with wires coming out of my head my android self would mock me with my helplessness in the hands of time.
And this is exactly the opposite of the danger I perceived – still perceive – in the sex-robot fascination, the danger of succumbing to the illusion of total control, total domination, in which consent is erased. The opposite of the Pygmalion complex.
Lost in the Cosmos
Plato wrote about how every new art, every tekhne, is a pharmakos: a Greek word that translates well as “drug” since it can mean either poison or medicine. We see this in social media, where we can build an invisible and non-physical community through text rather than physical presence, where we are invited to question our obsession with “presence” and possession of the moment, in a life where the moment is forever slipping away, and text is, banal or not, our barbaric yawp in the face of death. Where, with a few slashes of a keyboard, lives can be destroyed.
Whether androids are inevitable or not depends, it seems, on the trajectory of our increasingly shaky civilization. But there seems to be a certain inevitability about them, and Ishiguro’s projects open up the possibility of new vistas of exploration, not only scientific and technical but spiritual as well. As art always has been.
With this in mind the idea of a robot god in a temple seems suitable for an age in which we are constantly, anxiously, seeing images of ourselves, seeking to see and be seen, probing at the vast universe of Others by means of text in technology, sending our tweets and status updates out into infinity like messages in bottles.
In the field of negative or apophatic theology, God is beyond being, beyond naming. Presence, actuality, with a neat name and a label in a metaphysical system, is less to be trusted than the emptiness in which the promise of a still small voice remains constantly out of reach and therefore not yet distrusted. Robot-lovers and robot-gods could be seen as a pathetic denial of the reality of how lost in the cosmos we actually are – or, flip side of pharmakos, it could be an acknowledgement.
Like writing “Kilroy was here.” Like posting our selfies with the knowledge that our actual selves, our hidden selves, remain forever out of reach and never known as we long to be known.
The image of an unfinished god, an honest android, wires crowning her head, rivets holding her arms together, is religiously apt in a world where we have rightly learned to distrust closed systems of theology, politics, or anthropology. Mindar, in being everything to all supplicants, remains aloof from complete possession as well as strangely vulnerable, for a god. Like Nietzsche’s gods who “justify existence” by living it with us.
Or a little like Rilke’s Apollo who lacks arms and a torso, but nevertheless speaks, saying to us – you must change your life. There’s hope there, in the openness, the incompleteness: the hope that, after all, it could be changed.
I try to imagine what I would say if I were a visitor to the temple, communicating with Mindar. One of the big questions that has occupied my mind since I started writing about sex robots was the question of the line between person and non-person. In my novel, that dividing line creates a hidden realm in which any number of atrocities can happen. The things happen at the hands of men, and they happen to beings who look and act and speak and move like women. It’s #MeToo all over again.
And the robots are not happy.
image: Mindar, robot diety, via Wikimedia Commons
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Rebecca Bratten Weiss
Rebecca Bratten Weiss is a writer, speaker, teacher, and farmer. She has written essays for The Green Room, The Tablet, and the blog of the International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics, and US Catholic Magazine, among others. She is currently at work on a novel in which women in a near-future matriarchy control men via advanced AI technology. Read more of her nonfiction at her Patheos.com column, Suspended in her Jar, and at www.rebeccabrattenweiss.com