Warning: Spoilers for The Big O.
Artificial intelligence is one of those staples of science fiction, a bridge between the mechanical and the biological. For if an AI can achieve true sentience, it entails a whole host of questions about the meaning of life. In anime, one recurring topic is how artificial intelligence intersects with love—whether AIs are capable of love, and whether it is morally right to love an AI.
While something like Chobits is more (in)famous in its approach to the subject of love and AI, my favorite example is actually the mecha anime The Big O. While not the central narrative, protagonist Roger Smith’s relationship with his robot assistant R. Dorothy Wayneright is an ongoing plot thread that grounds an otherwise stylishly obtuse series.
Throughout The Big O, Roger is often verbally dismissive of Dorothy, bringing up her android qualities as evidence of what makes her unable to compare to humans. However, this is portrayed as a kind of denial defense mechanism, as he gradually finds himself attracted to and more in love with Dorothy. The impression is that Roger believes he’s not supposed to love her, and that perhaps he’s only drawn by her created and manufactured traits. Yet Dorothy, despite exhibiting very “robotic” mannerisms, seems to have an all too human side of her. And while her characteristic monotone is a source of comedy, it also seems to be a defense mechanism of her own—a constant reminder for herself and Roger that there are supposedly limits to how close they can be.
In one episode, Roger and Dorothy are Christmas shopping, and Roger steps into an elevator. He beckons Dorothy to get in as well, and she initially hesitates. When she finally does join Roger, the elevator comes to an emergency stop. Dorothy, weighing many times more than any human, put it over the weight limit. A moment of awkwardness ensues between the two, at least visibly on Roger’s side. Whether or not Dorothy is bothered by it is difficult to discern due to her apparent nature. Still, Roger and Dorothy seem to share a special connection. Nothing says more about their relationship than the iconic shot of Dorothy inside the Big O, her hand over Roger’s as he readies for a fight against three enemy Megadeuses at the end of Season 1.
Underlying all of this is the notion that love comes part and parcel with sentience. If Dorothy is nothing more then an android whose artificial intelligence is nothing more than a highly advanced computer, then that love feels “wrong” for Roger. But if it speaks toward a complexity beyond prediction, then Dorothy is an equal to Roger and therefore just as capable of love and being loved. In that situation, she must possess agency, and cannot be an object merely to be used. She must be her own being to the point that she can love or not love, and then make decisions of her own as to whether or not to follow along. In other words, it is morally right to love an AI if they can truly reciprocate, if human and robot stand on even footing.
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