The Intimacy of an Android: An Interview With Alex Mar

(Cait Opperman / Wired)

Alex Mar’s cover story for Wired‘s November issue, “Love in the Time of Robots” is an epic look at the life and work of Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, who has spent his life and career in pursuit of a more perfect android. He has made copies of his friends, family, and himself with his “Geminoid” project, and he delights in the moment when a human confronts its twin. What could have been a simple profile of Ishiguro goes much, much deeper — at nearly 12,000 words, it is one of the longest features that Wired has run in print — as Mar explores the origins of human nature and intimacy, and the desire to turn to a robot for comfort or companionship. “Most of us already allow technology to mediate what was once simple, direct human interaction,” Mar writes, “what really is the difference?” I spoke with Mar via email about her experience with Ishiguro and the freedom of writing at a length far beyond the typical magazine feature.

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How many times did you meet with Hiroshi Ishiguro? How did your understanding of him and his work change with each meeting?

I’ve been in touch with Hiroshi for over two years and we spent about three weeks in each other’s constant company in Japan, between Osaka and Tokyo. He was immediately forthcoming with me, very open and direct. We had a great, natural rapport from our first Skype chat, and that was a big part of why I decided to pursue the story. Almost immediately he announced himself as less of a roboticist and more of an artist, which I could relate to more than an engineer’s perspective — he was turned on by big concepts and risk-taking.

Over time he did become more open about his family, a subject that’s pretty verboten for him, as he’s always been a firm believer in keeping his family life separate from his public, professional life. (Ironic, considering his first major experiment was an android copy of his then 5-year-old daughter.) He’s a charismatic figure, and he and his work have gotten plenty of press coverage internationally over the years. It took a moment for him to realize I was also interested in very minute details about his life — his childhood, his personal habits — things that he at first dismissed as too boring to discuss. It’s funny how often people assume that the kind of minutia that really makes a story, the intimate stuff, isn’t worth mentioning.

Ishiguro closely studies the small physical cues involved in human interaction in order to build a better android. (He notices, for example, that people never sit completely still.) But you seem to think his understanding of humanity is lacking. How did your understanding of his work change over time?

I don’t know if Hiroshi’s understanding of humanity is lacking any more than yours or mine. It’s more that his project is immense and requires a lot of hubris. He’s studying, measuring, and trying to replicate something that remains pretty intangible: the human presence, which the Japanese call sonzai-kan. The ineffable thing that signals to us that we’re sitting across from a living, breathing, thinking, feeling person. Plenty of people would call that a soul — something that, by definition, is impossible to replicate. So I think the bigger question here is: Do you think that human-ness is something that we can measure and weigh and build from scratch? Hiroshi’s answer to that, at least in public, is a resounding yes. But in private, I think that Hiroshi is conflicted. Personally, he seems to be struggling with his own deep desire for human connection — he spoke to me repeatedly of his feelings of loneliness — and I don’t know if he’ll ever be able to reconcile that with his work.

When did you suspect you would have to be a part of this story? How did you decide how much of yourself to put in?

I consider myself a “literary” non-fiction writer, but not a particularly confessional one. I believe in using the first person sparingly in journalism; in my longform stories I’ve tended to use it more as a light-handed framing device. But with my first book, Witches of America, about the present-day witchcraft movement around the country, I was surprised and a little bit horrified when I realized I needed to go all-in and insert myself as a character. I needed to be honest with myself and the reader about my curiosity about witchcraft, and to be frank about how subjective my experience of these Pagan rituals was — there’s no “objective” way to take part in a religious ceremony. My approach to the book became very personal and immersive, and any other approach would have felt dishonest.

When I returned from my first reporting trip to Japan, I had that feeling again: The subject of the story required a writer who was also a stand-in for the audience. I had to be able to describe in a very immediate way the experience of being around those androids, of being immersed in Hiroshi’s world and his way of thinking about humanity. When events in my personal life began to get all tangled up with the ideas I was absorbing in Hiroshi’s labs, I felt the only honest way to write this story was to weave that in.

Do you think that inventors who work at the edge of what is technically possible — with artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and so on — lose sight of what humans actually want, what we actually need? It seems like much of what Silicon Valley provides serves the interests of a narrow subset of people in the name of helping humanity.

It seems to me that the goal of a lot of research and development is to anticipate a need, or perhaps to create a desire where previously there was none. Android development is less about a concrete need — a robot doesn’t have to have a human face to perform surgery, or rescue someone from a war zone — but it does seem like an extension of the parts of our lives technology has already colonized. So many of our relationships are already virtual or text-based: entire friendships with people we almost never see in person, interactions with avatars people have created to stand in for themselves online. I’m willing to bet that internet porn, for those who are more or less addicted to it, is rewiring their sexual instincts and, to a degree, eliminating the need for actual human contact. And what about the constant need for affirmation that Instagram or Facebook satisfies? Are we really interacting with humans when we’re interacting on social media, or would that shot of cortisol to the brain be just as satisfying coming from a bot? If you go down this rabbit hole, it becomes possible to imagine a market for android companions, whether platonic or sexual, that goes beyond a “narrow subset” of people.

But putting that longer-term apocalyptic talk aside, here’s something else to consider: AI, android science, VR, etc. — these are clearly male-dominated fields, whether we’re talking about Japan or the U.S. Therefore the needs and desires research and development is addressing are, for the most part, the needs and desires of men — the fantasies of men projected onto the not-so-distant future. When I learned that Hiroshi had produced some two dozen attractive female androids, I thought, of course they were female, young-looking, and pretty. He may be a radical, independent thinker, but he’s ultimately following the dictates of an industry built by men.

This is one of the longest features Wired has ever run in print, over 12,000 words. Was having that kind of length helpful for this subject, or was it unwieldy at times to tell a story of that length?

My very first draft of the story was close to this length, and it felt natural. I’m very grateful that Wired was willing to give it that space, about twice their typical feature length. I think there was a consensus that this story needed that kind of room because of how it continues to evolve all the way to the last page. Hiroshi’s work has a breadth of scope that requires that much space if you’re going to push beyond “man who creates good-looking androids” terrain to get to something deeper. My editor Mark Robinson was a real believer in the piece and wanted to avoid any cuts that might subtract from what he thought made it different and strange and intimate.

There’s also the fact that, for whatever reason, 12,000 words is a sweet spot for me with magazine features. I like to hurl myself into the subject and write my way out of it, and it seems to land at that length nearly every time. But I believe that every story has a length that it naturally wants to land at, once you’re plugged into the writing process. That’s why it’s so valuable to have magazines that are willing to take this kind of risk and go long. This kind of freedom is the greatest gift an editor can give you.

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