Mechanical Love

Mechanical Love


Reviewed by: Keith Hennessey Brown

The opening text sets the agenda for this documentary from young Danish director Phie Ambo: for the first time in the world's history the number of elderly people will exceed the number of children. This demographic shift has many implications, one of which is that robots will need to move out of the workplace and into the domestic space. In consequence, they will also need to acquire social skills.

Ambo looks at this subject through the work of two Japanese researchers taking very different approaches. One, Professor Ishiguro, works with his colleagues on developing what they term geminoids. These are robotic duplicates of people, specifically himself, his wife and daughter, which it is hoped will eventually be able to impersonate their human doubles utterly convincingly. The other, Dr Shibata, works on developing robotic pets. In contrast to Ishiguro's blue-sky research, Shibata is focused very much on the here and now, with the testing of a prospective production model, the Pero, that he hopes will be of therapeutic value for the elderly, like Frau Korner, the third of the film's main characters.

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Shibata seems more critical of the (western) ideal of mimesis, commenting at one point that an earlier cat-like robot failed to work with test subjects because they tended to conceptualise it in relation to their experience of real cats and correspondingly found it wanting. This led to the development of the Pero, which looks like a baby seal and thus represents something familiar and comforting but which most people in Japan and Western Europe have experienced primarily through visual images.

In the course of the two men's discussions of their work and their respective field tests, a number of fascinating issues are raised: the gulf of the “uncanny valley”; what it means to be human; what it means for something to have a spirit or soul, with untranslatable differences between the Japanese notion of sanzai-kan and the closest western analogue of presence; and, ultimately, of what love, mechanical and otherwise, means.

Thus, for some of the staff in a Danish nursing home debating the value of the Pero for their elderly patients, the key difference between it and an animal is that it cannot feel love or have a genuine emotional connection, whereas for an elderly Japanese couple it forms a valid replacement for the dogs they have previously kept because it too has a life expectancy – ten to twelve years apparently – and could, in the Shinto tradition, conceivably have a kami or spirit of its own.

Taken in its own terms Mechanical Love is a success, though I found myself drifting into avenues that are left unexplored at times whilst watching it, like whether or not more effective use of traditional robots could not free more of the working population up for caring for the elderly, either occupationally or simply for their own elderly relatives.

Similarly, that the research examined comes from Japan seems particularly intriguing in light of the country's notably ethnically homogenous population, with one wondering how far the search for non-human alternatives to employing the disproportionately younger populations of the developing world was also a motivating factor, when given the issues around the likes of Korean-Japanese, Brazilian-Japanese and Ainu populations.

A few less self-consciously lyrical interludes might have allowed the filmmakers more scope to touch on these admittedly more politicised subjects, although it could also be legitimately countered that the images of trees blowing in the wind, clouds and landscape passing, or of urban sprawl themselves help to highlight the fundamental issues of the relationships between man, nature and technology.

Unusually for an intimate documentary / documentary about intimacy, the film is shot in widescreen, used most tellingly when Ishiguro's daughter Lisa encounters her father's geminoid in the lab and proves wary of getting too close.

Reviewed on: 22 Jun 2008
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Mechanical Love packshot
Artificial Intelligence and the Uncanny Valley, androids that we can love bookend the story.

Director: Phie Ambo

Year: 2007

Runtime: 79 minutes

Country: Denmark


EIFF 2008

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