Do androids dream of electric sheep?
I’ll forewarn you – this post will probably be a bit on the untidy side, as I am more or less stream-of-consciousness’ing it. If I had the time to actually sit down and truly think it through prior to writing about it, I would, but as it stands, I don’t but still want to write about it anyway. So bear with me.
Recently, I found myself in the bookstore with a pretty hefty coupon clutched in my hand. As I inspected the shelves of manga, I felt a faint whiff of annoyance gnawing at me over how quickly individual volumes vanish from the shelves for most series; although I was searching for two volumes from two series I’m following which were released in May and June, I couldn’t find them. All that sat on the shelves were one or two copies of their latest volumes, a sure reflection of the state of both the manga industry itself and the state of the brick-and-mortar bookstore in general. My eyes settled on the first omnibus of Chobits, though, that Dark Horse has released, and I picked it up to inspect the price. I frowned for a moment and calculated how much I’d save by using the coupon, and thought, “Well, why not?” After all, I’d heard for years (although definitely not as much nowadays) that Chobits was a pretty solid series. And half the manga for $15? Who could argue with that?
I read the first volume the other day and enjoyed it. I also found myself still thinking on the issues of robots and romance after putting it down, too. One of the things that struck me most was how, if anything, Chobits has become more relevant since its initial publication, something that isn’t an easy feat in stories that weave technology into their narratives so heavily (a great example: while the Nancy Drew books still read fairly freshly, many Hardy Boys’ books feel extremely dated due to their desire to incorporate the latest gizmos and advances into their stories), particularly when that technology is speculative. I would suggest, though, that the types of robots depicted in Chobits do perhaps have better staying power than, for example, a super-computer or wireless communication device may, if only since the basic idea of living amongst robots isn’t one which would necessarily seem old-fashioned even if we were to find ourselves in such a world in the future. Put more simply: the question of what defines humanity is one that will probably never find a precise answer; thus, since this is truly the central matter of Chobits, it’d be hard-pressed to come off as archaic.
Anyway, Chobits and relevancy.
We haven’t quite gotten to the point of having robots that look so similar to human beings, nor has a robot been developed with he degree of complexity as the persocoms have. However, we have gone from simply having folks with 2D crushes to folks getting hitched with their 2D crushes. These 2D characters clearly lack many of the characteristics of persocoms (uh, such as being 3D, with the exception of dakikamura), but they do exist on that same spectrum – namely, not being human, yet capable of replicating/mimicking human reactions and emotions. They also issue forth in the social sphere a reaction to their existence as someone’s ‘love’ interest who lacks personhood or humanity. While most of the questions run along the lines of “What is wrong with that person?” and “Are they crazy?”, they do bring up initial questions of morality and humanity, even if these pale in comparison to the judgments delivered on sanity.
Robot-centric anime provide us with an abstract axis upon which we may also ponder questions such as these. I would argue, though, that ultimately robot anime aren’t really interested in arguing for or against going on dates with robots; these shows are really just navel-gazing shrouded in a few allegories, with some exceptions, and with the potential to use them as jumping-off points for conversations about technology and humanity. But, yeah, the core question is what it means to be human, and it isn’t one aimed exactly in interest of rendering human status upon a robot or not.
Of course, I think this question gets pretty muddied in many robot anime, if only since the siren of romance seems such a beguiling thing to the writers. Chobits is a romance; Saber Marionette J is a harem show; Roger chooses the robot Dorothy toward the end of The Big O; Haruka calls the mecha Imber her boyfriend (this is probably the most unique example on here, by the way, as the only other show I’ve seen that even comes close to aproximating such a dynamic is Yukikaze) (ok, so Idolm@ster Xenoglossia is actually a pretty bad example since the show isn’t actually at all concerned with examining anything deeper than a puddle). And, yes, the presence of romance doesn’t automatically mean an absence of inquiry – it just tends to downplay that in favor of, well, resolving the romance.
Let me try to explain what I’m saying a little more clearly: the anime is more concerned with providing resolution for the romance, so the focus is on ‘how do we get the two together?’ as opposed to ‘what does it mean if these two get together?’. There are still elements of confusion surrounding the matter as the human character questions their feelings since the object of their growing affection isn’t ‘human’, but the conclusion is usually foregone, and the issues played out simply because they must be. The matter of personhood could be replaced in many instances by any other complicating factor – she’s my sister! He’s from another dimension! She’s sick! He’s with my friend!
One could conclude from anime that many Japanese people are fully in favor of robot-human romance. And in those instances that the robot doesn’t triumph, it’s usual the harem situation, so, well, who cares? A bunch of other girls lost, too!
I’m not really terribly convinced that all anime and manga containing romance between a person and a robot are meant as arguments in favor of human-robot relationships. Again, I think often it is utilized as a means of providing spice to the plot, a way of prolonging a story that could probably be finished off in a mere volume or so otherwise.
I do think Chobits does have some aspirations to truly examine the question of what defines humanity, and also matters of morality vis-a-vis technology. (Although I do wish that perhaps they’d gone a little lighter on the fanservice). Otherwise, I doubt I would’ve truly continued to meditate upon the notion of romance with machines after I’d put the first omnibus down. I certainly didn’t continue to think about it after I watched Saber Marionette J.
I think my feelings about the idea of artificial intelligence as incarnated in a Chobit or a Saber Marionette (e.g. an ability to learn and develop true sentience) are heavily influenced by my beliefs regarding metaphysics. I am troubled, quite simply, by the lack of a soul. This branches into two primary concerns for myself – that, first of all, the being with whom someone is conducting a romance isn’t really human, and secondly and even more importantly, that the individual, well, will eventually break down and that that’ll be it. No being reunited in a future life or the afterlife; the show’s over, everyone go home.
In that sense, the whole gambit strikes me as cruel. You create beings that, on the one hand, have the potential to outlive humans, and so get to watch all those they care for die away one by one, but on the other hand, when they do break down/”die”, they do not get the opportunity to “see” the loved ones again, nor do the loved ones get to “see” them again. People cannot imbue anything with a soul; it just isn’t possible. So even if it is possible to create robots which possess everything else, there is no changing this part.
At the same time, I’ll confess that reading Chobits left me with a desire for a persocom. Sumomo is so adorable! I’ll also say, though, that I felt a bit troubled by this desire itself, as upon a bit of thinking, I realized that I thought it’d be cool to either have a small one like Sumomo, or a Chobit. A Chobit? Isn’t it a bit worrisome to desire something that begins in a form tailored to my specifications? Yeah, sure, they change since they possess free will, but they can still begin by looking just as you want them to. A little height here, a bit of blue in the eyes there… And surely one can also pick an initial personality to begin with, not just a blank slate. So even with the free will in the mix, there are still a lot factors under one’s control. And if you don’t like how your Chobit acts? Well, just wipe that hard-drive.
I think that’s about it on everything I had to say. Or all I’m gonna get to say for the time being (someone keeps talking to me and won’t stop). I assume I’ll have more to say when I actually finish Chobits.
For the record, R. Dorothy is probably my favorite humanoid robot in anime.