Since its rise in popularity in the 19th century with literary works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), science fiction (sci-fi) continues to be one of the most popular genres in media; with it comes the fixation on what makes us truly human and the distinction between humans and robots. With the proliferation of technology, there has been an unprecedented rise in innovations of A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) augmented with human qualities (Jonker & Nelis, 2013) Mankind’s futuristic creation, the artificial human, no longer seems like a pipe dream. Perhaps in response to this, the renowned 2008 Disney-Pixar animation WALL-E explores the ambiguous definition of humanity with its diverse cast of humanoid robots and robotic humans. Exhibiting the most human nature, WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class) is arguably the best example of a human-like robot in the film – he has the capacity to love, to feel human emotions and is able to ruminate. On the other side of the spectrum, humans living on the Axiom, a spaceship used to escape the waste-ridden Earth, act like mindless drones – they are incapable of deep thought and are not given any agency, sometimes even seeming more mechanical than the actual robots in the film. The notion of humanity is thus challenged.
Following the exponential rise in development of human-like A.I., the understanding of its implications to society is ever so pertinent. The question of how WALL-E abrades the boundary between mankind and machines to affirm our apprehension about furthering the development of human-like A.I. will be addressed. This convergence of both bodies into a single entity, the artificial human, brings the question of what being human truly means. My paper maintains that WALL-E’s erosion of the distinction between humans and robots is thus significant as it proclaims that mankind’s anxieties about A.I. is justified; these include the fear of being replaced, of losing our own humanity, and of not being able to distinguish artificial humans from the real ones.
My paper maintains that WALL-E’s erosion of the distinction between humans and robots is thus significant as it proclaims that mankind’s anxieties about A.I. is justified; these include the fear of being replaced, of losing our own humanity, and of not being able to distinguish artificial humans from the real ones.
Human, Robot, or Both?
In the film, WALL-E is the robot which best exhibits human nature. He displays a variety of human emotions – fear, when he was close to being crushed to death, curiosity, when he finds an interesting trinket or two while working, and even happiness, when he watches his favourite musical, “Hello, Dolly!”. Despite seeming like a human within a robot body, he is shown to be robotic as well – he has the ability to replace broken parts for self-regeneration and also the capacity to live without sustenance, instead running solely on solar energy for “food”. When he meets E.V.E., he falls in love with her, something which only sentimental beings like humans are capable of. He exhibits both robotic and human characteristics and is thus an amalgamation of both, representing the artificial human.
He exhibits both robotic and human characteristics and is thus an amalgamation of both, representing the artificial human.
Aboard the Axiom, humans are depicted as beings with little autonomy – they have lost the ability to walk, instead travelling on hover-chairs which pathways are dictated by the pilot of the ship, AUTO. Without a say in where they would want to go humans are just transported around by AUTO. They are thus perceived to be mindless machines controlled by a ‘master’ and are incapable of deep thought. None of them contemplate the reason for their existence and they are unable to form meaningful relationships. Instead, they speak to each other through holo-screens even when the person they are holding a conversation with is right beside them. Losing their autonomy and their means for meaningful communication, which are characteristics of mankind, highlights the lack of humanity in human beings, resulting in an unclear delineation between mankind and machines.
Anxieties about human-like machines
By abrading the boundary between humans and robots, WALL-E creates the superior super-human by hyperextending human potential and surpassing mortal means. It therefore plays on the fear of mankind being replaced, implying that it is justified. The hardy and robust features of robots typically result in faster, stronger or better characteristics. By melding human and robotic qualities, the resulting entity – the artificial human – would possess favourable traits that an archetypal person lacks; it is everything a human is and more. As such, artificial humans are effectively augmented humans. There is no need for an inferior version if a better one exists.
Telotte, in her article “Human Artifice and the Science Fiction Film” coins this idea of the replication of man as ‘doubling’. Doubling refers to the creation of a human ‘double’ through another entity, which in WALL-E’s case is the artificial human. Telotte (1983) argues that the artificial human becomes “little more than a copy himself” which “[threatens] to render [Man] largely irrelevant” (p. 50). The use of doubles in WALL-E, therefore resonates with the worry that mankind will be replaced with a better copy of themselves. Aboard the Axiom, the only workers are service robots – humans on the spaceship are not given any jobs. Their inhuman serving speed and efficiency at responding to the needs of the people, enables them to substitute human workers. Due to this displacement, humans on the Axiom lose their sense of purpose and are perceived as mindless drones which eat, sleep and do ‘nothing much’ as their captain McCrea aptly puts it. Curiously, the use of the artificial human as a protagonist instead of an actual human might hint to the movie’s preference of human-like A.I. to Man as the former is a better hero than the latter. WALL-E’s amalgamation of robotic and human qualities thus alludes to a future where mankind is rendered useless and unnecessary due to the superiority of a human-like robot, acting as a reminder that the worry that we might get replaced is warranted.
Admittedly, WALL-E is an artificial human riddled with imperfections. He has a number of flaws that seemingly do not make him any more superior than humans are, thereby negating his ability to replace Man. As such, WALL-E appears to be assuaging the anxieties people might have about the progress of human-A.I. development. While doing his job of compressing waste on Earth, he comes across a fire extinguisher and clumsily opens it, blowing him off his feet and causing him to be slower and more inefficient at his job, making him inferior to a typical human worker. With the film’s protagonist’s apparent inability to substitute humans, it seems as though WALL-E might not be affirming the worries of the development of innovations involving human-like A.I., but doing the opposite instead. However, this is but a superficial claim. These very flaws are what make him relatable and loveable. Men are creatures with flaws – to err is to be human. As such, these shortcomings of his allow him to surpass mankind in WALL-E when it comes to being human, replacing them for what they essentially are.
By taking the place of mankind, human-like robots are effectively displacing our humanity. Ironically, WALL-E concurs with the warning that our persisted venture into the development of machines augmented with human qualities would result in a loss of our humanity. The benefits of human-like robots are plentiful – embedded with empathy, artificial humans can sense the moods of humans, adjusting their directive to best suit our capricious nature. Such a feature maximises efficiency of these robots and will evoke a reaction humans often have when presented with a novel and proficient piece of technology – over-reliance. Our over-dependence on emotional and empathetic robots leads to a degradation of human skills as they are rendered useless. These human skills which are inherent and unique to Man, such as the capacity for multi-layered communication and even empathy are lost and we lose much of what defines us as human.
This is complicit with Telotte’s (1983) claim that “modern [man’s] … fascination with artifice [resulted in him losing his humanity] in exchange for that knowledge of how to double the self” (p. 50). Our preoccupation with the development of human-like A.I. and the doubling of our selves led to the degeneration of human nature. Similarly, in WALL-E, due to the adeptness of empathetic service bots, humans on the Axiom have no freedom to make decisions and have become apathetic. These compassionate robots are capable of detecting signs of distress in a person – when John, one of the humans on the spaceship, fell off his hover-chair, response from the service robots were swift and immediate. However, due to the instant response system and skilfulness of these machines, humans on the Axiom are shown to have become over-reliant on technology, and thus mindlessly go about their lives while depending on such robots, losing agency and capacity for deep thought which are human qualities. Therefore, WALL-E concurs that our fears of being overthrown by A.I. might be justified.
Interestingly, humans in the Axiom are seen to not exhibit much human qualities until WALL-E comes in as a messiah, saving them and in the process, returning their humanity. He emancipates everyone from their mindless reverie, ridding them of their hover-chairs and granting them agency. The mechanical aspect of humans in the film is thus removed due to the help of the artificial human, WALL-E. This symbolism indicates WALL-E’s belief that mankind can only regain its humanity through the artificial human. Curiously, the artificial human seems to be perceived to be more ‘human’ and thus can act as a reminder to mankind as to what truly defines the human. It is perhaps demonstrating mankind’s trepidation of the artificial human exhibiting more human qualities than actual humans.
The doubling of Man in WALL-E due to the lack of delineation between human and machine leads to the formation of an almost similar replica of Man; both entities, although purported to be disparate bodies are both the same in that they express both robotic and human qualities. Undoubtedly, WALL-E propagates our fear that artificial humans will be indistinguishable from mankind. Without a distinct feature to differentiate artificial humans from the actual humans, a situation like that in Bladerunner (1982) might result: the difficulty of identifying who is what and what is who and the cultivation of a constant palpable sense of dread and anxiety. Mankind already has reservations about robots equipped with human qualities – if they are unable to discern the non-human, society will be perpetually afraid of an impending robotic apocalypse that they are incapable of pre-empting. Their basic human right to live without fearing for one’s safety will be threatened.
Undoubtedly, WALL-E propagates our fear that artificial humans will be indistinguishable from mankind.
Telotte (1983) claims that mankind perceives only two types of artificial humans to exist: “the one working to serve man and the other to threaten [man’s] position in the world”. (p. 45) This black-and-white worldview nurtures the fear that those harbouring ill intent towards humans will inevitably overthrow mankind. If they were identical to humans, the latter could use the guise of the biological humanoid body to covertly accomplish its mission of overthrowing humans. Suspicions and speculations would rise, compromising cooperation within society. WALL-E seems to be alluding to the possibility of such a bleak future if developments of A.I. with human traits continue to be developed. In the film, the robots belong to two distinct camps – WALL-E, the film’s protagonist heads one while AUTO, the antagonistic autopilot of the ship, leads the other. WALL-E aided humans in their quest to return to their home planet, Earth, and thus works to serve Man. AUTO, on the other hand, desires to prohibit mankind from returning to their true homes and is the one who took away the agency of humans on the spaceship, undermining their humanity. Therefore, WALL-E implies that mankind’s worry that artificial humans are indistinguishable is warranted.
All in all, although WALL-E is a cartoon seemingly created for entertainment purposes, it is a noteworthy film in the genre of science fiction for questioning what makes us truly human and also affirming the anxieties we have about the rapid development of A.I.. Through its abrasion of the delineation between humans and mankind, the artificial human represented in WALL-E resonates with the anxieties of Man: of being replaced, of losing our humanity and of our incapability to distinguish artificial and real humans. Perhaps through this, humans would hesitate when improving on human-A.I. technologies and practise more discretion.
Jonker, C. & Annemiek Nelis. (2013). Human Robots and Robotic Humans. Engineering the Human, 83-99.
P. Telotte. (1983). Human Artifice and the Science Fiction Film. Film Quarterly, 44-51. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3697349
Stanton, A. (Director) (2008). WALL-E [Motion picture on DVD]. Disney.