Artificial intelligence is a promising area of study in healthcare, as it can significantly improve the quality of patient care. Developing and applying AI falls within the scope of STEM research that “stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math” (Dalton). While STEM is firmly rooted in science and mathematics, the field is also linked to the humanities. Thus, AI and the relationship of people with it is a popular topic for research in cinematography and is presented from different angles. In particular, they exist as multimillion-dollar science fiction films that depict the dystopian worlds of the future and raise concerns about integrating robots into everyday life. However, from the point of view of humanities research, more non-trivial and unexpected images of AI in cinema are of the greatest value. One of these unusual plots is a romantic drama describing social relations between people and AI Zoe, released in 2018 (Zoe). The film was influenced by several concepts of humanities, while they were specifically applied to AI and robots.
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The Movie Description and Brief Summary
The modern film industry often refers to the topic of robots and AI in various settings. Zoe was directed by Drake Doremus and released in 2018 (Zoe). This picture is not a popular and well-known example of a science fiction movie, and many viewers may not be familiar with it. The theme of love between a human and a robot has already been presented in cinematography, for example, the famous film Her (Her). However, Zoe also discusses broader social aspects as well as personal stories.
The plot of the film focuses on two main characters who are involved in creating ideal romantic partners for different people. They offer customers robots that would completely replace a loved one and would be ideally matched in all psychological and physical parameters. It is noteworthy that the male protagonist is a human, and the female is an extremely advanced AI, which is used as a prototype for all other robots. She is integrated into society on an equal basis with people, and no one suspects her origin so that she can learn about human relationships and emotions. It is natural that gradually she has romantic feelings for her partner, which seems to be a challenge. Despite working to create ideal couples for other people, the male protagonist does not believe in the possibility of a relationship between an AI and a human. In the end, the emotional tension of the main character increases, and she feels the fullness of the unpleasant emotions of unrequited love. Such completely human feelings make the object of her passion think about the falsity of his beliefs.
Historical Context and Artistic Genre
The greatest impact on the appearance of the film was the interest of artists in the topic of robots and AI. In particular, many people are concerned with how society will change with the development of technology. This topic is often the reason for the creation of dystopian films that describe the detrimental effect of excessively smart AI on society. The genre of science fiction in various fields of art, in particular, explores this aspect. However, the most attention is paid to works with a deeper and more detailed social agenda, which focuses on the emotional and psychological aspects of the development of robots. An example is a popular Blade Runner book and films, which have generally pioneered the exploration of the complex inner world of AI (Blade Runner). Such works consider robots not as a technology but as a social component, which in the future may become a part of people’s everyday life.
Thus, the genre of science fiction, in particular social science fiction, had the greatest influence on this film. Palmer explains “traditionally in science fiction, writers working with STEM-field predictions have been classified as ‘hard SF’ and those working with social science predictions… have been defined more as ‘soft SF.” This direction in cinematography directly examines human society in isolation from a detailed description of technological features. In such works, AI is often a familiar part of society, and the artist discusses how it affects people’s interactions.
Concepts Influenced the Work
In the film, one can find various concepts that touch on different topics. First, the work clearly illustrates the idea of happiness in its specific application to AI. Various philosophic movements such as Epicureanism, Hedonism, Stoicism, and others view happiness from different perspectives as an integral part of human life. The central questions about this concept are the essence of happiness and whether it is the goal of life or a component of it. Zoe, as other works in the social science fiction genre, considers the possibility of such an idea as happiness for a robot and AI. However, in this case, the study is carried out from the opposite, through consideration of the state of total unhappiness of the female protagonist. This view is more similar to the ideas of Eastern philosophy, which finds sense in avoiding suffering than Western philosophy focusing more on biological or, in this case, technical factors. This particular view of happiness as a product of a creature’s social and emotional life sets social science fiction and Zoe apart from genres that are more traditional.
The concept of love is central to this work, as it constitutes the major part of the characters’ experiences. In particular, romantic love plays a key role in both the general and personal storylines. The dichotomy of body and soul is also important in Zoe, as intellectually and emotionally, the male protagonist perceives his AI partner as absolutely suitable. However, her body, which is a product of technology, shapes his perception. This topic is extremely important for the film, as it forms the main subject of the director’s research. Doremus tries to understand what constitutes a person and what specifically distinguishes humans from other creatures. Romantic love for him is one of these criteria that determine humanity and the ability to accept the characteristics of others.
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The concept of death also influenced this film, as in the end, being rejected starts to kill the female protagonist. In this case, the symbolic death of a character occurs, who considered his existence as love for another. Science fiction often questions whether robots are intelligent enough to have their own meaning in life. Unworthy, being unwanted by another person is the most undesirable outcome for the female protagonist. In this case, the inability to fulfill its key role, which the AI determined for itself, led to the end of life. The concept of death, in this case, is closely related to the concept of self-affirmation, which in the Zoe movie is available to a particular robot. This idea is extremely important for the study of technologies in art, as it addresses the main issue of whether developed AIs are aware of themselves. In the film, the self-affirmation of the female protagonist consists in proving her suitability as an object of romantic love for a person, actualizing herself as a significant social element.
Finally, the concept of freedom is also an integral part of both the film and the genre as a whole. In particular, the problem of assessing the action and decision-making of AI, as well as the required range of restrictions, is key for the study of robots. In connection with determinism, AIs are limited in their free will by rules, which are set for them by their creators. Thus, their lifestyle and actions are determined in advance, even if they are not aware of it. In this case, AI has freedom within the limitations; that is, they are able to make decisions regarding a narrow range of tasks that are set for them by the creator. This idea is illustrated in the film, as the goal of the female protagonist was to learn social interaction and understand the emotions of people. However, in this case, the result of such a limitation was the emergence of completely human feelings in her. Thus, this result was not determined by the creator of the AI but was expected within the framework of the task given.
Applying humanitarian concepts to the study of technology and robots seems an absurd idea. However, nowadays, people are increasingly exploring the social, psychological, and emotional dimensions that can be potentially accessed by advanced AI. The film Zoe in this case discusses the fact that robots can learn not only human behavior but also the way of thinking, turning them into creatures indistinguishable from people. In particular, the director explores what concepts constitute the human essence and how they are integrated into society. The female protagonist illustrates ideas about happiness, love, death, self-affirmation, and freedom that are a concern of human nature. Thus, Zoe reveals a perspective in which intelligent robots will not cause disaster but will merge with human society and obtain human traits.
Blade Runner. Directed by Ridley Scott, performance by Harrison Ford, Warner Bros. Pictures, 1982.
Dalton, Wyatt. “What is STEM?” Pearson, 2019.
Her. Directed by Spike Jonze, performance by Joaquin Phoenix, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013.
Palmer, Ada. “When Science Fiction Meets Social Science.” Scientific American, 2018.
Zoe. Directed by Drake Doremus, performance by Ewan McGregor and Léa Seydoux, Amazon Studios, 2018.