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Pandora, AI Girlfriends, and “Reborn” Babies

October 23rd, 2023 | 7 min read

By Nadya Williams

Once upon a time, very long ago, a man lived alone. Perhaps he wished for a companion, perhaps not. We really don’t know. What we do know is that for a set of very complicated reasons, when the well-being of mortals became a pawn in the power struggles of the pagan gods, the gods created a wife for him. She was, in some ways, the perfect woman, a collaborative project of the gods, who each endowed her with a gift, resulting in her name: Pandora—“all the gifts” or “the gifts of all.”

Except, she was not a woman; she merely looked like one. She was, rather, an automaton—or a robot, if you prefer. In her book Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology, Adrienne Mayor looks at both literary and artistic portrayals of Pandora, and finds a consensus: Pandora, the product of the workshop of the craftsman god Hephaestus, was seen in the Greek imagination as an artificial being, rather than real flesh-and-blood woman. As a machine, she was designed for a purpose, and that purpose was nothing good.

Chances are, you have heard about Pandora and the ills she caused—plagues upon the world that she let loose out of the container that was her twisted dowry from the gods. These ills are a fitting reminder of the warnings that already ancient pagan writers had in mind when dreaming of technology far beyond anything possible in their lifetime. We can create artificial beings that may look like us—sort of, on the outside. But these artificial beings deceive, distort, and destroy those with whom they interact. Mayor explains:

Pandora calls to mind another myth about a cunning artifice that was a dangerous gift—the Trojan Horse. Some versions of the story of the Trojan Horse, built by the Greeks and presented to the Trojans as a ruse of war, suggest that it was sometimes imagined as an animated statue with articulated joints and eyes that moved realistically…As a being that was made, not born, Pandora is unnatural. A replicant with no past, Pandora is unaware of her origins and her purpose on earth.

Robots and AI creatures cannot die, yet they cannot live either. They exist outside of time, for they have no real memory, no ability to feel and experience events the way real flesh-and-blood people do. Their realistic appearance is but a weapon of deception and destruction.

Epimetheus, the one who received the cursed gift of Pandora from the gods, had no idea what he let into his home. He was fooled simply because he was foolish—one whose name literally means “after-thinker.”

As more Pandoras proliferate around us, however, not everyone is fooled by accident. Some today choose the lie, preferring it to the truth. The consequences are no less destructive than those imagined in antiquity.

Recently, a report on the rising trend of AI girlfriends made rounds. What is an AI girlfriend? She is anything you wish her to be. “Eva AI invites users to create their dream companion, while Dream Girlfriend promises a girl that exceeds your wildest desires. The app Intimate even offers hyper-realistic voice calls with your virtual partner.” In a world of customer-is-always-right, an interested consumer can now design the perfect woman for himself. There’s just one catch: she won’t be real. She will be virtual. But close enough—she will sound real, at least. Critics have rightly noted the problem with distorting men’s ideals of relationships through such a process. But there is more.

This fantasy world of creating relationships outside the realm of real life but mimicking reality to a grotesque degree is not limited merely to romance. Four years ago, The New Yorker profiled “Women Who Mother Lifelike Baby Dolls.” Termed “reborns,” the dolls look realistic to an extreme degree, mimicking real-sized infants. Only up-close does one notice that they are not real flesh-and-blood. They are not dead, but they are not living either. Still, for those who collect them, they seem deeply real:

A woman named Marilyn told Harris that “the dolls here really are like part of the family.” Another, named Laurel, said, “Holding the baby literally plays with your mind, it’s so real.” And Kym, a stepmother of five, wanted to have a baby who would be only her own; when she ordered a reborn doll online she “fell in love with it, because it looked and felt like a real baby, the baby I’d never had.”

What might be the problem with these relationships—AI girlfriends or reborn babies? Should we be quick to condemn these phenomena, considering that such practices are not, technically, harming anyone? I contend that yes, we should, for these practices stem from a worldview that rejects the preciousness of human persons and sees created beings—virtual girlfriends or plastic babies—as equal to real people. In fact, individuals who choose these replacements for live people usually do so in lieu of such relationships in real life.

We know that what we love shapes us. Loving replacements, replicas of reality, shapes us to embrace the lie as if it were truth, only leading us further from a life lived in real family, real community. Such is not a life of flourishing.

Yet in some ways, the temptation of these “relationships” is understandable. The ads for AI girlfriends play on this overtly: as they say, here is the dream girlfriend who will never disagree, never criticize, never disappoint. The subtext, of course, is: any other girlfriend will. Or, in the case of a baby, here is an infant who will never wake you up at night, will never spit up or get sick and make you miss work, will never just inexplicably cry for hours on end as your nerves fray from exhaustion and pity and guilt, as you pace the room trying to comfort this crying infant, sobbing yourself and thinking that you will never ever sleep again. But what do we miss when we settle for such “relationships”? We miss humanity, but we also, in the process, miss God, whose image we get to encounter in every imperfect human being whose we love in this life.

It is tempting to blame our twenty-first century society for such twisted desires to play God and create people—fake loved ones—in one’s own image and for one’s own sole pleasure, all while disassociating ourselves from the difficult and demanding people with whom we could instead lovingly live our lives. It is no accident, however, that stories like that of Pandora survive already from antiquity as cautionary tales, rather than celebrations of technological innovations and automata saving the day.

Dreams of automata stem from dreams of control. Should we really desire people to be only what we want them to be, rather than seeing them as God’s image-bearers in their own right? How bad would the results be if we let someone continue down the road of AI girlfriends or relationships with automata? Here is one modern cautionary tale by way of an answer.

In 1884, the young French writer Rachilde (her pen name) published one of the most scandalous novels of the day, Monsieur Vénus. In this book, an overly bored aristocrat, Raoule, treats an impoverished florist, Jacques Silvert, as the object of her pleasure, marrying him but molding him further and further into her own vision of desire. At last, when he is killed in a duel—which Raoule had orchestrated as well—she orders a lifelike automaton to be made as his replica. Not going so far as to embalm Silvert’s body, she orders nevertheless that his hair, eyelashes, and teeth be extracted from his corpse and installed in the automaton. It is with this robot replica of Silvert that Raoule continues to be amorously involved at the close of the novel. Having killed the human version of the man with whom she had toyed so cruelly and whom she had tried to transform into everything she wanted, she at last gets all her desires and dreams realized through passionately kissing the lifelike robot.

Rachilde’s cautionary tale adds an important dimension to that of Pandora: it is not only the deception and lies of the machines that we should be worried about. Rather, relationships with AI beings or robot “people” dehumanize us too, allowing us to retreat to the most selfish, subhuman version of ourselves. On the other hand, it is the pricey aspects of real relationships—the sacrifices they require of us physically, emotionally, spiritually—that make us grow and flourish as image-bearers living in community with other image-bearers, both in times of joy but also, no less important, sorrow.

When we pursue life with other people—spouses, children, friends, neighbors—we open ourselves to the possibility that one day, death, whether ours or that of someone else, will bring an end to our relationship. After all, all human beings are defined by these bookends: we are born and we die. Dreams of substituting artificial beings for real children or spouses, however, challenges and defies these natural boundaries. In an image that should disgust us, Rachilde’s Raoule simply pillages body parts of her deceased husband to create a better one, one who will never die—and will never disappoint her again. It is a twisted modern vision of “happily ever after.”

In the case of Pandora, we never get more details about Pandora’s marriage to Epimetheus. We do not know how the years treated them—mythology isn’t really interested in documenting such tales. But we know the fruit of this marriage. Pandora’s children are the curses and plagues she had unleashed upon the world when she opened the jar that the gods had sent with her for this very destructive purpose. There is a double-entendre that the original audiences would not have missed: the container is akin to a womb, and opening it was parallel to delivering a baby.

Pandora turned out to be fruitful indeed, and these children of hers are a good image to consider as a final warning. Every relationship bears fruit, but not every fruit is good. Indeed, not every fruit is human. The fruit of relationships with automata and the larger world of AI that they represent can only be something monstrous, cursed, deformed—something that seems to be an imitation of the thing, a form of it, just dangerously enough reminiscent of the real thing as to deceive some to receive it as true.

The pagan gods lied to Epimetheus—and the rest of humanity in offering this artificial being as a fitting companion. But God did not lie when He knew that only a fully fleshed human, another image-bearer, could be a fitting companion for Adam, and could in relationship teach him to be fully and truly human.

Nadya Williams

Nadya Williams is the author of Cultural Christians in the Early Church (forthcoming Nov. 2023 from Zondervan Academic). Her next book, Priceless, is under contract with IVP Academic. She is Book Review Editor for Current, where she also edits The Arena blog.