Sex Robots, an African Heroine, and the Uncanny Valley (Part 1)
May 26, 2017 § Leave a comment
When I first came across African artist Milumbe Haimbe a couple years ago, thanks to introduction by Cissie Swig, beloved San Francisco art benefactor, her graphic novel “The Revolutionist” was clearly a science fiction. The story is set in the near future on a satellite colony off the orbit of mainland Earth, dominated by a corporation. Social conformity is subliminally reinforced, the economy is purely corporate-driven, exploitation of human by human thrives and the insatiable appetite for sex robots threatens to tip the already delicate social balance. This gives rise to the resistance called Army for the Restoration of Womanhood. The protagonist Ananiya is a special agent in its Covert Operations Division when news spreads that the Corporation is developing a prototype robot that is sophisticated and sexually attractive enough to replace human women altogether. Before long the resistance galvanizes into a full-blown revolution, and Ananiya thrives to become the most unlikely hero on a mission to destruct the prototype before it enters the mass market.
If the story of robots replacing real women sounds far-fetched, I am here to report that Abyss Creations, manufacturer of RealDoll, life-size sex dolls designed to recreate the appearance, texture, and weight of the human form, has launched Harmony AI, bringing artificial intelligence to the dolls the company has been making for 20+ years. “Harmony smiles, blinks and frowns. She can hold a conversation, tell jokes and quote Shakespeare. She’ll remember your birthday, […], what you like to eat, and the names of your brothers and sisters. She can hold a conversation about music, movies and books. And of course, Harmony will have sex with you whenever you want”, as Jenny Kleeman reports for The Guardian after visiting the factory and interacting with the prototype.
Like standard current RealDoll models, Harmony already boasts hyper-realistic life-like body, created with high-grade silicone which retains heat and allows for a “more realistic feel and greater elasticity” (than sex dolls made in Japan since 1980’s with plastics), “fitted with a hinged jaw, with ‘soft, stretchy lips, ultra soft tongue, soft silicone teeth’, and “fully customizable from her hair down to her labia”. With the AI app, you can now also customize her personality from 18 different traits – kind, sexual, shy, naive and brainy, etc. – and adjust how strongly those traits are expressed.
Harmony is not the only smart robot who will flirt with and pleasure her owner. The $30 billion “sex tech” industry has a race underway to create the world’s first commercially available AI-enabled sexbot, with dozens of firms contending. Harmony is the most impressive, but among frontrunners there are also Eva, built on moulds of real women’s bodies and could supposedly put herself in 20 different sex positions; Roxxxy, on its 16th edition since her non-animated debut in 2010; and Samantha, with a “functional g-spot and sensors covering her hips, shoulders, vagina and mouth”. Harmony is expected to hit the market later this year, perhaps in time for Christmas, for about US$15,000. Many excited doll owners are awaiting.
The future with sex robots brought to life is almost here. Haimbe’s foresight is proven. Her fiction is no longer in the science.
Haimbe started working on “The Revolutionist” in 2013. She is certainly not the first to write about sexual machines – among films alone there have been Bladerunner, Weird Science, HER and Ex Machina, etc. The notion of man-made “perfect woman” dates back to Pygmalion, the sculptor in Ovid’s epic poem Metamophoses in 8 AD who fell in love with one of his statues. However, Haimbe’s story is told from a very different perspective – that of a gay African woman.
In this installment, we feature Milumbe Haimbe and her story behind “The Revolutionist”.
In the next installment, we will take a closer look at artificial sexuality and muse on what it tells us about our messy humanity, now on an uncertain trajectory.
Milumbe Haimbe and her African heroine
Brought up in Zambia in the 1980s, the beginning of the country’s worst economic crisis, Haimbe and her siblings and friends around the farmland spent countless hours perfecting their extra-terrestrial SOS, fantasizing superheroes coming down from the galaxies to rescue them from their dreary lives. Superheroes like Superman, Spiderman, Batman and the Incredible Hulk, whose brands were merchandised everywhere and were huge deals during her childhood. She badly aspired to become a superhero herself. Then disillusionment set in: she would never become one, because all superheroes in movies and pop culture are white, male, straight and privileged.
Years later, what she did become is an accomplished artist, with a background in architecture from her native Zambia, and an MFA degree from the Oslo National Academy of the Arts in Norway. She has exhibited in numerous shows worldwide; and among other grants and awards, she has been a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Centre Creative Arts Fellow and a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow. Her art practices focus on the forms of representation of cultural minorities within the context of popular media. She creates comics, animation, and graphic novels to discuss intercultural issues and endeavors to bridge cultural gaps.
“The Revolutionist” is an homage to her unrealized childhood dream – Ananiya, the superhero, is a 17-year-old black girl. While leading the resistance, Ananiya also has to survive growing pains of a teenager, including understanding her own sexuality. Just like the artist had to confront.
Full Chapter 1 can be downloaded for free here.
Essinova Contributor Ruixuan Li interviewed Haimbe about how her multiple backgrounds play in the creation of “The Revolutionist”.
Ruixuan Li: Is there a particular reason that you use 3D modeling technique to create the cityscape in “The Revolutionist?”
Milumbe Haimbe: The thing about making artwork for comics and graphic novels is that you often have to draw the same scenes over and over again, and from many different angles as well. This was very challenging when it came to reproducing complex scenes, and I thought it would be great to build entire sets to use as references, like miniature versions of the kind of sets that are used for big budget Hollywood movies. But of course I do not have those kinds of resources. So I use 3D modelling to get around this challenge.
RL: Do you have any plan to bring this story to animation?
MH: I totally have plans to animate the story, maybe even create a video game version of it.
RL: You hold an architecture degree as well as a MFA degree. How do you see yourself benefit from these multiple backgrounds?
MH: The fact that I have these multiple backgrounds broadens my horizons and gives me the ability to approach my work from different perspectives and wider angles. For example, there are several significant buildings that make up the cityscape of the futuristic city where “The Revolutionist” is set. I individually designed each of these buildings, paying attention — I did not get too crazy with it — but I paid enough attention to the technical and structural components of my designs to lend them some realism despite their outlandish forms.
The idea was to create the impression that these buildings had the chance of standing if they were actually built in real-time. Because of my different backgrounds my creativity is one part technical and the other part organic or unrestrained. When my artistic expression goes out of control the architect in me reels it in, bringing it down – not exactly right down to earth, but back into the stratosphere.
RL: Why do you choose the setting / background of “The Revolutionist” to be in a futuristic world?
MH: The choice to set The Revolutionist in a futuristic world frees it from so many limitations. The future does not yet exist. It is not subject to existing constructs. In a sense, it presents a myriad of alternatives, and of possibilities of how we can make our [future?] better than it is, or alternatively worse. As far as I am concerned, the future is fair game.
RL: Fighting against heteronormativity and objectification of women, Ananiya is a symbol of freedom. What does freedom mean to you?
MH: Freedom to me means never being in a position to apologize for who I am. The less I am stereotyped because of my gender, or prejudiced against because of the colour of my skin or whom I love, the more freedom I have. The world just might be an easier place to live in if we didn’t stress so much about our differences. There are some things about the other that we just can’t change so doesn’t it make perfect sense to just deal with it? Why don’t we all jump into bed and get along?
RL: How do you balance cultural minority and diversity in your work?
MH: I believe that diversity has a lot to offer the genre, although it would be worthwhile to be culturally diverse behind the scenes as well, you know, like include talent from more diverse backgrounds in the roster of writers, artists and editors in the production line.
RL: Do you see yourself as a queer artist?
MH: That’s an interesting question. I am queer and I am an artist, but I don’t really like to subscribe to labels. I’d like to believe that my work is inspired by my experiences. It just so happens that my experience of being female and queer in my context provides me with a lot of material to explore, so I might seem to talk about femaleness and queerness a lot, but ultimately those aren’t the only things I want to talk about because I am a lot more than my gender or sexuality. I can safely say that I am an artist who happens to be queer, and vice-versa.
RL: Which country or city in the world do you think has the best climate for discussing representations of cultural minorities?
MH: I have not been to every city or country in the world so I am probably not in the best position to answer this question with any authority. I have had a number of online interviews where I have freely expressed my views. So, I’d say that the best climate for these discussions for me is the Internet. Wait, does the Internet count as a territory? Like some sort of weird civilisation where there are no borders or boundaries, and the “citizens” can come and go as they please without permits or consequences?
RL: Would Ananiya continue to fight against sexism, racism, and all other unpleasant social evils?
MH: Any place, any time… even in the future on Super City Arcanarc, Ananiya would fight against situations, such as hate crimes and sexism and other vices by resisting — resistance by staying true to herself and standing by her truths, even if she is still figuring them out. And if underground resistance is not enough, Ananiya would take the fight where it belongs — to the streets. She would revolt; burn that city to the ground. Disclaimer — that’s just what Ananiya the fictional character would do. In reality there are other ways of revolting that pay due diligence to the instruments of civility and justice, and do not involve war-mongering and violence.