Measure of a man: will robots ever have the capacity to feel human emotions? Photo: Blutgruppe/Corbis.
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Reprogramming science fiction: the genre that is learning to love

From Battlestar Galactica to Spike Jonze’s new film Her, modern science fiction is growing up and humanising.

There is more reason than usual to turn off your phone before settling down to watch Her, the new film by Spike Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich. The plot concerns a man who falls in love with a female entity similar to Siri, the iPhone’s talking assistant software. Or rather, he falls for a super- intelligent, super-advanced, conscious version of Siri called Samantha, a digital woman who knows everything, exists nowhere and everywhere and cares only for him.

Voiced with guileless avidity by Scarlett Johansson – because that’s exactly who a clever software company would hire to whisper emails, appointments and other sweet nothings directly into your ear canal – Samantha is designed to adapt, learn and grow alongside her user. When the socially awkward and soon to be divorced Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) instals her on his suite of devices, she reads all of his emails and personal data, instantaneously getting to know him in a time-saving digital meet-cute.

Yet Her is more than just a cloud-compatible ROM-com. Is the digital woman falling in love or just mimicking affection according to her programming? And is human love just needy mimicry, too? Theodore is so smitten that he doesn’t ask until it’s too late. Though some critics have claimed that Her fails to explore fully whether Samantha is or is not autonomous, the film ends on a disturbing note of freedom for her and desolation for him. In science fiction, intelligent machines are supposed to raze our cities and kill us in our millions. Jonze’s film suggests something more poignant and plausible: that the machines will break our hearts.

Why is science fiction – the genre in which the human condition is tested under altered circumstances – historically so shy of tackling the subject of love? The days of the emotionless Asimovian thought experiment may be over. From Doctor Who and The Hunger Games to the rebooted Star Trek franchise, pop science fiction now dominates the entertainment mainstream. Film blockbusters and SF novels, both “hard” and populist, present romantic and sexual attachments as essential validations of character. Yet, with exceptions such as David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas and Stanisław Lem’s Solaris (both adapted into films) – and perhaps even the Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion – very few of them are actually about human relationships.

“I’m wary of the caricature that Princess Leia in a brass bikini is the maximum emotional content that male science fiction fans can endure,” says Adam Roberts, author of SF novels including Salt and Gradisil. “But you do still encounter many fans who are not dissimilar to Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. They enjoy science fiction – particularly hard SF – because it’s knowable, it’s quantifiable, and love is not like that.”

There is a simpler reason why love has seldom dominated the science fiction landscape. Who has time for romance when the planet is doomed? When the revived Doctor Who broke with its stoical tradition to show the inner cost of time travel to the companion Rose Tyler and her family, some fundamentalist fans decried it as “EastEnders in space” – as if emotions were a subject fit only for soap operas. Yet the delicate combination of pop entertainment and the never spoken attraction between Rose and the Doctor helped make it the most successful revival in television history.

This is because the makers of the modern Doctor Who correctly intuited that the capacity to give and receive love is what defines us as human, even if it says Gallifrey on our birth certificate. This trope is by no means the exclusive property of science fiction. Certain genres excepted, it’s possibly the root subject of most fiction. In SF, however, the loss of humanity is not a picturesque metaphor. It is one of the contingencies that SF deals with, in which love becomes the last guarantor that you are still a person.

In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is Winston Smith’s desire for Julia that tempts him into his small, doomed revolt against Big Brother’s dehumanising system. Love and rebellion become indivisible. The promiscuous future society of Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel Brave New WorldNineteen Eighty-Four’s flip-side – anticipates that totem of the 1960s and 1970s, a benevolent dystopia in which nothing matters because real love and therefore real freedom are absent. Decades later, in the 1987 film RoboCop, the cyborg policeman Murphy’s buried memories of his lost family lead him back to a qualified sort of freedom. Love validates humanity and vice versa.

Though Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) is ostensibly about who should and should not be considered a human being, the question is linked to the capacity to love and be loved. The “replicant” hunter Rick Deckard’s attraction to the artificial woman Rachael awakens his misgivings about the business of “retiring” manufactured humanoid workers with a bullet and he begins to suspect that he, too, is a replicant. But if Deckard and Rachael feel human, surely they are human – and what feeling is more human than love? Many SF fans are most comfortable with Eros when it’s entangled with such philosophical questions: when it’s sublimated into the fantastical.

These ideas appear again in the relaunched Battlestar Galactica series, a magnum opus of post-human ethical wrangling that ran from 2004 to 2009. Here, mankind is almost exterminated by its own robots the Cylons, whose leader caste has evolved into superhumans – some of them beautiful and capable of loving a human. Is the love they show less real because they are machines? Or is it what gives them a valid claim to humanity?

It’s no wonder that conventional, vanilla, same-species love finds it hard to hold the centre ground in SF. Next to increasingly realistic questions of trans-humanism and artificial intelligence, old-fashioned romance just isn’t that interesting. These issues are not going away. Young men in the Japanese otaku subculture are withdrawing from real-world social contact in favour of unquestioning virtual girlfriends on their Nintendo DS and a sexless existence.

Sex robots already exist (seemingly only in female models, funnily enough). As the prototypes become increasingly sophisticated, they seem destined to produce not a more plausibly human experience but something different. The more “real” our androids become, the closer they approach what is known as the “uncanny valley”. This unbridgeable state of near-humanity unsettles us more than outright artificiality. Pity the sentient androids of tomorrow – just as people endured misogyny and homophobia, they will have to contend with another prejudice: robophobia.

As well as machine-human relationships, science fiction has dealt with the subject of inter-species coupling: loving the alien. Writers as diverse as China Miéville, Alan Moore, Iain M Banks and Piers Anthony have explored its psychology. Avatar is possibly the definitive contemporary cinema romance, clapped-out noble savagery and all. Yet it is fair to say that SF is more interested in the biology than in the emotional aspect of inter-species xenophilia: all those gross couplings, all those bizarre cross-breeds.

Perhaps the best exploration of human-alien attraction is the most disturbing. In the 1972 short story “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” by the female writer James Tiptree, earth is visited by aliens who are so sexually irresistible that the human race loses interest in anything but their physical company. A form of sexual apocalypse ensues. Humanity is exogamous, hard-wired to want the other, whatever the cost.

Thought experiments such as these involving gender and sexuality were at the centre of the science fiction that accompanied second-wave feminism in the 1970s. Writers such as Ursula K Le Guin, Joanna Russ and later Margaret Atwood posited single-gender worlds, male extinction and reactionary future societies with still harsher patriarchies. If you interrogate the physical structure of the world, you will eventually question its sexual foundations, too.

Outside this core of idea-driven fiction, on the supermarket and airport shelves, there is a booming sector of outright romance with SF trappings. Pop literary SF romance offers up disarmingly relatable emotion in books such as Matt Haig’s The Humans – in which an alien assassin comes to earth and goes native for love – and the time-bending love story Replay by Ken Grimwood. On Amazon, the spacesuit-ripper is usurping the bodice-ripper; there are thousands of SF romance titles on sale on the site.

The Time Traveller’s Wife changed the game – most people who read it wouldn’t even class it as science fiction, which it most certainly is,” says the romance novelist Jenny Colgan, who also writes Doctor Who spin-off fiction (as J T Colgan). “So did Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A lot of significant things all happened around the same time. The internet connected female SF fans; amateur slash fiction showed what a huge, huge hunger there was out there for love and romance; and the status of men changed. The stigma of showing emotion has pretty much gone.”

Popular science fiction didn’t become feminised because it went mainstream. It went mainstream because it feminised – with the three-dimensional women in Doctor Who and The Hunger Games; with the geek girls who pack out shops such as Forbidden Planet and conventions; with the influx of female writers and artists into comics. (Earlier this month, Facebook revealed that 47 per cent of comics fans on the social network were women). Emotionally sterile fiction does not work for this new audience. These days, even Spock has a love interest.

The thing about science fiction is that when it has you, it has you for life. This new audience will surely demand a richer synthesis of raw ideas and raw emotion when they explore it in novel form. The gap in the market for a science fiction Jane Austen is clear. Human or novel-writing AI, she must be on her way.

Andrew Harrison writes on popular culture. Her is in cinemas now

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood