Thanks to Aaron Ducksworth, a 2023 Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.
November 10, 2023
Many movies of various genres have been made about the relationship between humans and anthropomorphic technology and the complicated relationship between them – think The Terminator franchise (1984-2019), I, Robot (2004), Virtuosity (1995), and The Matrix franchise (1999-2021). M3GAN is different! Not because it attempts to bridge the gap between horror and science fiction through an AI-based film, but because it does so by exploring the ways in which humans create AI technologies to appear ‘more human,’ while at the same time disconnecting from their own humanity. While centered on the development of AI technology and its move toward a sentient state, the movie M3GAN is rife with human emotions and experiences, which are unavoidable as long as humans exist. Furthermore, it provokes many questions about the relationship between humans and technology.
A key theme that emerges in the opening scenes centers on the role of parenting and technology. A parental argument over ‘screen time’ leads to a traumatic event that forces one of the main characters, a young child named Cady, to move in with her aunt Gemma, a young, single, professional who is climbing the corporate ladder. However, her desire to maintain focus on her career and minimize parental duties causes her to re-enhance her technology, Model 3 Generative Android, or M3GAN, to nurture and care for Cady the way a parent or guardian should. In her pitch to her design team about her goal for M3GAN’s capabilities, Gemma claims M3GAN will, “take care of the little things so you can spend more time doing what matters.” However, the little things she defers to technology include talking, listening, playing, comforting, reading, and other essential activities that are normally considered parental. This theme raises the question: Which, if any, ‘human’ activities should parents trust to AI?
A developing psychological theme that slowly emerges centers on Attachment Theory, which is the socio-emotional bond between children and their parents and caregivers. Cady develops an unhealthy relationship with M3GAN which is highlighted through her inability to go places or participate in age-appropriate activities with other kids if M3GAN is not present. The unhealthy attachment reaches its peak when Cady physically assaults Gemma after an argument about the “metaphysics” of M3GAN. Gemma explains that M3GAN is not a real person and Cady responds, “You don’t get to say that.” Cady’s unhealthy attachment to technology distorted her sense of reality and her ability to discern between proper affections for humans and technology. The film captures the physical, verbal, and emotional responses some people develop through unhealthy technological attachments. Questions this theme raises are: What ways do human-technology relationships subtly change human to human relationships? What ways does technology alter one’s sense of reality?
The movie can also be interpreted as a type of socio-cultural technological critique. Rather than the normal, and perhaps needed, analysis of human dependence on smartphones and social media, one of the film’s critiques centers on the intersection between corporate profits and technological innovation, at the expense of personal and social ethics. A driving theme that emerged from this intersection was Gemma’s imposed urgent need to develop a new toy for her company to outpace the competition. While she wants to innovate and introduce new ideas, which will take time and money, her boss is only focused on quickly generating profits on a limited budget. Facing pressure from her boss, who’s facing pressure from the board of shareholders, Gemma introduces M3GAN to the market prematurely.
Along the same critique, the film also explores workplace dynamics between profit driven leaders and their employees. A glimpse into the life of Kurt, an obscure background character who also works at the same company, is highlighted. His boss constantly belittles and dehumanizes him in public and in private. Desiring some sense of respect and vengeance, and recognizing M3GAN’s potential, Kurt engages in corporate espionage. The high-pressure work environment caused employees at every level to center profits and corporate competition as primary factors for decision making, at the expense of human dignity and tech and AI ethics. The film does a great job of capturing multiple workplace relational challenges at the intersection of poor leadership, profit motivation, and demand for innovation, and raises the questions: What is the role of ethical leadership in technological innovation? Should companies prioritize profits over the safety of the public? In what ways can technology pose a risk to public health?
The use of humanlike AI, technology, and special effects surpasses previous humanoid-human centered movies. Often, scenes with M3GAN and Cady feel like scenes between two people. As a major box office production, the cinematography was great, however more impressive was the overall storyline and the ability to explore many themes, like business ethics, trauma, and anthropology, without directly naming them.
M3GAN is a sci-fi, tech horror that explores the philosophical questions of technology and the relationship between humans and technology in a new way. By placing perhaps the most human-like AI to appear in a movie to date in relationship with a child and centering the challenges in their relationship, M3GAN moves the tech-horror genre forward. Moreover, it also serves as a great film for exploring and discussing what it means to be human in a capitalistic, workaholic, and tech-centered society. M3GAN is worth watching multiple times. Given the many intersecting tech themes and their immediacy on society, it’s a great discussion starter. M3GAN 2.0, currently scheduled for an early 2025 release, should be a nice addition to the franchise.
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