The Prosthetic Impulse Revisited in A.I. Artificial Intelligence



How to Cite

Alberto, M. (2019). The Prosthetic Impulse Revisited in <em>A.I. Artificial Intelligence</em>. M/C Journal, 22(5).
Vol. 22 No. 5 (2019): prosthetics
Published 2019-10-09

As a genre, science fiction deals with possible futures, imagining places and technologies that typically do not exist in audiences’ own lives. Science fiction film takes this directive a step further by creating visual representations of these futures and possibilities, presenting audiences with imagined ideas of what new technologies or unfamiliar places might look like. Thus, although any science fiction text can describe sociocultural and technological futures, science fiction film goes a step further by providing images that viewers do not have to envision for themselves. This difference can enable science fiction films to deliver even more incisive stories and commentaries on futuristic technologies as “sociotechnical assemblages” (Gillespie 18) – that is, as machines whose possibilities stem from humans’ interactions with them as much as from the technologies themselves.

Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra maintain that today’s society is already interested in a real-world version of sociotechnologies: they call this interest the “prosthetic impulse” (4). For Smith and Morra, the prosthetic impulse can denote either “ways that the body and technology come into contact with one another” (4) or else any exploration of boundaries between technoculture and “the body, its histories, and its mutability” (6). However, Smith and Morra also warn that the prosthetic impulse often creates unreasonable expectations of what technology can accomplish: a prosthetic can “assume an epic status that is out of proportion with its abilities to fulfill our ambitions for it” (Smith and Morra 2), and the drive to “enhance” human bodies’ capabilities can signify beliefs that abled bodies are the standard, desirable norm (S. Smith).

Science fiction films in turn often pick up on real-world ideas such as Smith and Morra’s prosthetic impulse as new ways of visualizing possible futures. Knowledgeable fans could undoubtedly list several examples of prosthetics in favorite sci-fi movies, including those donned by Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker, Star Trek’s Borg collective, Mad Max: Fury Road’s Imperator Furiosa, and many more. However, these films can also heighten the prosthetic’s immoderately “epic status” (Smith and Morra 2) and result in “our fantasies for technological possibility [being] played out across depictions of impairment” (Hung par. 10). In science fiction film, then, the prosthetic impulse can strongly reinforce problematic assumptions about what human beings “need” to have added, augmented, or replaced in order to function according to subjective norms.

Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence, though, expands the implications of the prosthetic impulse even further by broadening the types of bodies, losses, and functions that we imagine prosthetics can address. Set in a dystopian future where human-driven climate change has decimated the environment, world governments have instituted mandatory birth control, and socioeconomic stratification has skyrocketed, A.I. Artificial Intelligence speaks directly to Vivian Carol Sobchack’s 2006 concern that “theoretical use of the prosthetic metaphor tends to transfer agency [from] human actors to human artifacts” (23), though it does so in a novel way.

The film’s human characters, or “human actors” to use Sobchack’s term, expend their creativity and resources not to address the issues of environmental catastrophe, starvation, and class warfare that humans themselves have created: instead, they turn to manufacturing advanced robots, or “mechas”, that are literally “human artifacts” (Sobchack 23) created to help humanity avoid the debilitating consequences of its own destructive actions. As a result, the film’s mecha characters, seen most clearly in the “child-substitute mecha” David and the mecha prostitute Gigolo Joe, are positioned as prosthetic humans intended to fill social roles and functions that human beings themselves are incapable of fully satisfying.

The Prosthetic Human

Even though it offers a new angle to this concept, A.I. Artificial Intelligence is hardly the only science fiction film concerned with some configuration of the prosthetic impulse. In fact, several other science fiction films incorporate one of three other versions, each building up to more and more complex possibilities before we reach the prosthetic human as envisioned in A.I.

The first – and arguably most common – treatment of the prosthetic impulse in science fiction film is found in the partial prosthetic, where technology is depicted as replacing or repairing one visible part of the perceptible bodily whole. Common versions of the partial prosthetic include replacements for limbs or even certain organs, with examples such as Luke Skywalker’s prosthetic hand in Star Wars, the techno-organic Borg collective in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Bucky Barnes’s metal arm in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films, and Furiosa’s metal arm in Mad Max: Fury Road. The partial prosthetic in science fiction film is the most analogous to real-world prosthetics, despite problematic conflations created by this comparison (S. Smith), and the partial prosthetic is also the one that Mailee Hung is describing when she maintains that in science fiction film “it is technological, or even technophilic, fantasy that is being explored rather than the spectrum of human ability” (par. 11).

A second treatment of the prosthetic impulse in science fiction film is visible in the full-body prosthetic, which denotes a technology that completely encloses or envelops the human body. Anne McCaffrey offers an early example of this type with her “Ship Who Sang” series (1961–1969), where “brainships” are created when children with severe physical disabilities but above-average brains can be rescued from euthanasia by having their minds linked with spaceships. Thankfully, later science fiction narratives tend to avoid most of the eugenicist and ableist overtones plaguing McCaffrey’s work. Science fiction films also offer examples of full-body prosthetics that can be departed or disengaged from at will, and these prosthetics may be used to enhance an abled body rather than housing a disabled one. Examples of full-body prosthetics in science fiction film include the boxing robots of Real Steel (2011), the Jaegers of Pacific Rim (2013) and Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018), the genetically-engineered alien bodies operated by remote human pilots in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), and the police robot MOOSE in Chappie (2015), among others. In these cases, the full-body prosthetic is a technological entity that must be interfaced with by a human consciousness – and sometimes the whole human body – in order to perform some function that the human body alone cannot accomplish.

A third way of depicting the prosthetic impulse in science fiction film can be found in what Victor Grech calls Pinocchio Syndrome, or a “reverse prosthetic impulse” (265). Here technological, non-human characters “desire to become human” (Grech 263) and often attempt to gain humanity in the form of a human body, “its histories, and its mutability” (Smith and Morra 6) that will replace their own mechanical components. Examples of this third type include Data of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1994 television, 1994–2002 films) and NDR-113/Andrew of the novelette “Bicentennial Man” (1967), the novel Positronic Man (1992), and the film Bicentennial Man (1999). Data is an android, and Andrew is a service robot, who both explore what it would mean to “be” human and actively pursue different means of achieving humanness – Data through human emotions and NDR-113/Andrew through a fully human body.

All three of these science fiction versions – the partial prosthetic, the full prosthetic, and the reverse prosthetic impulse or Pinocchio Syndrome – tend to reinforce Smith and Morra’s warning that the prosthetic, both as an aid and as a technology, can “assume an epic status that is out of proportion with its abilities to fulfill our ambitions for it” (2). Put differently, just because these technologies exist within the films’ storyworlds does not mean that they can fix the characters’ or even the worlds’ problems, and the plots of many science fiction films actually stem from these assumptions.

Of these three versions, Grech’s “reverse prosthetic impulse” (265) might initially seem the most applicable to A.I. Artificial Intelligence, particularly because most of the film follows David’s quest to find the Blue Fairy of the Pinocchio tale and petition her to make him “a real boy” (A.I. Artificial Intelligence). However, even Grech’s term does not fully cover what Spielberg’s film is attempting through its characters and its setting. Unlike robot characters who embody Grech’s reverse prosthetic impulse, David is not attempting to “become” human: instead, he articulates his struggle as the desire to “become real”, which prioritizes not humanness via a human body but instead David’s self-perceived ability to better fulfill a particular role within a nuclear family. Moreover, unlike the ways in which Data and NDR-113/Andrew fulfill primarily career-adjacent roles in their respective storyworlds – Data as a ship’s officer, NDR-113/Andrew initially as a caretaker and butler – A.I. Artificial Intelligence depicts a world in which mechas are both an “essential” form of labor in a decimated global economy, but can also be constructed to fill specifically social roles such as child or lover. Where robots like Data and NDR-113/Andrew enact a reverse prosthetic impulse in their yearning to “become” human (Grech 263), thus treating humanness and the human body as prosthetics to technology, David as a “child-substitute mecha” and Gigolo Joe as a “lover robot” (A.I. Artificial Intelligence) are more like prosthetic humans.

In A.I. Artificial Intelligence, humans attempt to replace, enhance, or augment specific interpersonal relationships using “human artifacts” that function like Sobchack’s “human actors” – only, better than those human actors ever could be. David is continually described as a child who demonstrates unconditional love but never loses his temper, catches ill, or grows older; Gigolo Joe describes mecha prostitutes like himself as “the guiltless pleasures of the lonely human being” (A.I. Artificial Intelligence) and promises that they will never get pregnant, clingy, or tired of sex. Because David is a “toy boy” and Gigolo Joe is a “boy toy” (Sobchack 2) – both meant to enhance different types of human relationships without the inconveniences that a human actor would bring into the picture – A.I. Artificial Intelligence is also imagining sociocultural structures like the nuclear family or the heterosexual romantic relationship as the wholes, the social bodies, that the prosthetic human will supposedly repair. Here the prosthetic impulse becomes human beings’ drive to use reparative technologies to replace other human beings entirely, rather than simply parts or functions of the human body.

David as Prosthetic Human

David’s role as a prosthetic human meant to repair or augment human relationships is made clear even before the character himself first appears onscreen. Instead, the film’s initial scene follows Professor Allen Hobby, the scientist who leads the team that later creates David, as he pitches a new mecha of “a qualitatively different order” to a skeptical audience (A.I. Artificial Intelligence). Hobby contends that his new robot will be capable of love “like a child for its parents” instead of the “sensuality simulators” already available (A.I. Artificial Intelligence), and moreover, that this kind of love “will be the key by which they [mechas] acquire a kind of sub-consciousness never before achieved. An inner world of metaphor, of intuition, of self-motivated reasoning, of dreams” (A.I. Artificial Intelligence). However, these plans are quickly challenged by a female scientist who poses a moral question: “Isn’t the real conundrum [whether] you can get a human to love them back?” (A.I. Artificial Intelligence). Hobby then cycles through three responses to his peer’s question, all of which point to the ways in which David is positioned as a prosthetic human.

First, Hobby stresses that this new mecha will be “a perfect child caught in a freeze-frame: always loving, never ill, never changing” (A.I. Artificial Intelligence). His claim implies that families want or need a perfect child, and also that childhood perfection entails unwavering physical health, a permanently positive attitude, and unshakeable devotion to the parent(s) – all features that a real human child, as Sobchack’s “human actor”, cannot provide. Then too, Hobby’s claim that David is a child caught in “freeze-frame” perfection also hints that, as a form of technology, a prosthetic human supersedes many of a biological human’s limitations: just moments later, for example, the film’s audience learns that David’s adoptive family the Swintons have a young son, Martin, who has been placed in a cryogenic chamber until his terminal illness can be treated. For David, being “caught in a freeze-frame” of eternal and “perfect” childhood is beneficial to the Swintons, who will then experience his love and participation in their family unit forever – unlike Martin, who when similarly “frozen” cannot express or reciprocate familial affection at all, and so has been superseded by David.

Hobby’s second response to the female scientist’s moral question is to assert that David, as a “child-substitute mecha” (A.I. Artificial Intelligence), will answer both a market need and a human one: because world governments issue a limited number of pregnancy licenses, Hobby argues, mechas like David may become many families’ only way of having children. Here, the family unit is imagined as incomplete without offspring, to the extent that there is a species-wide “human need” for children (A.I. Artificial Intelligence) even though global catastrophes such as climate change and mass starvation are unavoidable threats to real children’s future welfare. To this end, Hobby positions a “child-substitute mecha” like David as a prosthetic for the family unit, filling in for children without taking up any of the resources needed to raise an actual member of the population who will then face and inherit unfixable global issues. Moreover, toward the end of A.I. audiences also learn that David was created to look like Hobby’s own dead son, meaning that this entire line of child-substitute mechas has stemmed from Hobby’s own grief – and perhaps his need of a prosthetic to repair it.

Finally, Hobby’s last response to his peer’s challenge is to ask: “In the beginning, didn’t God create Adam to love him?” (A.I. Artificial Intelligence). This rhetorical question reiterates how Hobby built David, reminding Hobby’s challenger – and by extension the film’s audience – that human actors are technology’s creators. The question’s rhetorical nature also implies that a creator’s status translates to their right to use such created technologies however they choose – regardless of the potential harm to either the prosthetic human or the "real" humans around them.

Thus, although most of A.I. Artificial Intelligence does follow David’s journey to become “real”, it is important to realize that this quest actually stems from his being a prosthetic human rather than just Pinocchio Syndrome or a “reverse prosthetic impulse” (Grech 265). The very features of unconditional love, eternal innocence, and unchanging health that initially made David so attractive to the grieving Swintons are the same attributes that later lead to the family’s hostility when Martin does recover, and David is eventually abandoned in the woods – the prosthetic human child ousted for the “real” human child he was intended to replace. David’s longing to become “a real boy” so that Monica Swinton will return his love and welcome him home stems from his realization that he was always just a “technological substitution” (Hung par. 9) for Martin, and because of this, David’s desire to “become real” is better understood as him seeking to become a true part of the whole nuclear family instead of remaining a replacement or attachment to it. Rather than just “desire to become human” (Grech 263), David seeks to move from being a “human artifact” to becoming a “human actor” (Sobchack 23).

Gigolo Joe as Prosthetic Human

While Gigolo Joe also serves as a prosthetic human in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, he does so in different ways than David. As a “child-substitute mecha”, David was created for intentionally prosthetic ends: even though he “can never be anything more than an approximate substitute” (Rosenbaum 74), he was still made specifically to repair or complete family units like the Swintons, rendering them “whole” by taking the place of an unavailable human child. As a mecha prostitute, though, Gigolo Joe was not created with prosthetic ends in mind: he was made to augment or supplement sexual experiences on a temporary basis, not to replace a long-term human partner or to make a sexual or romantic relationship whole by his presence within it. Also in obvious contrast to David, Gigolo Joe addresses sexual appetite rather than a need for filial love, provides short-term pleasure instead of a long-term connection, and is never intended to be seen by the film’s human characters as a human man instead of a male-shaped mecha. These are crucial differences between the two mechas’ purposes, functions, and target audiences, and Sobchack sums up this disparity by describing David and Gigolo Joe as two different types of “love machines” that remain “[s]uspended between an ironic Kubrickian critique of technological man and his Spielbergian redemption” (12–13).

However, these differences between David and Gigolo Joe also translate into their being different kinds of prosthetic human. Where David was created to be a prosthetic human in the context of a childless family, replacing a needed member in order to make that family whole, Gigolo Joe takes the initiative to position himself as a prosthetic human, substituting the technology of his mecha body for the various physiological and/or emotional shortcomings of absent human sexual partners. Then too, where David rejects and attempts to outstrip his status as a “technological substitution” (Hung par. 9) for a human being, Gigolo Joe seems to exult in his part as substitute for human being.

Audiences are shown this difference immediately. Where David is introduced through descriptions by Hobby, the scientist who created him and knows exactly what he wants David to accomplish, Gigolo Joe is introduced in person, alongside a nervous young woman who has apparently solicited him for sex. This unnamed woman admits that she has never had sex with a mecha before, and Gigolo Joe quickly discovers bruises from physical abuse by a human partner. In implied contrast to this unseen human partner, Gigolo Joe remains quiet, respectful, and gentle as he navigates the young woman’s communication of her fears and desires: he also assures her first that “once you’ve had a lover robot, you’ll never want a real man again” and then that “you are a goddess ... [and] you deserve much better in your life. You deserve me” (A.I. Artificial Intelligence). Both implicitly and explicitly, then, Gigolo Joe promises to provide his client with sexual and pseudo-romantic fulfillment: Sobchack frames this appeal as Gigolo Joe's ability to "satisfy every female sexual need and desire (including the illusion of romance) without wearing out” (5). But Gigolo Joe can only accomplish all of this because he is a perceptible, self-aware substitution for a human man – and a substitution that does not replicate the intentions and behaviors of his clients' "real" human partners.

Gigolo Joe returns frequently to this idea that substitution is positive. Later, for instance, he explains to several fascinated teenage boys that mecha prostitutes “are the guiltless pleasures of the lonely human being. You’re not going to get us pregnant or have us to supper with Mommy and Daddy” (A.I. Artificial Intelligence), emphasizing that humans do not need to fulfill any social obligations toward mechas precisely because they are not “real” lovers. Gigolo Joe also pitches mecha sex workers by reminding his listeners that “We work under you, we work on you, and we work for you. Man made us better at what we do than was ever humanly possible” (A.I. Artificial Intelligence), suggesting that a substitute sexual partner will offer technological advantages over their human counterparts.

Through dialogues and exchanges such as these, Gigolo Joe positions himself as a prosthetic human, acknowledging that he and his sex worker peers were not really meant to “repair” or “complete” human relationships even as he also maintains that mechas do replace human partners in important ways, even if temporarily. However, Gigolo Joe also recognizes the realities of being a prosthetic human in ways that David seems incapable of. For instance, when one of his clients is murdered by her human partner for seeking a replacement lover, Gigolo Joe realizes immediately that the man won’t even be suspected while Gigolo Joe himself automatically takes the blame. Similarly, Gigolo Joe is the one who can tell David that Monica Swinton “loves what you do for her, as my customers love what it is I do for them. But she does not love you. . . You were designed and built specific like the rest of us” (A.I. Artificial Intelligence). David rejects this warning, demonstrating that his creation as a prosthetic human has made him impervious to that same reality, but Gigolo Joe’s positioning himself as a prosthetic human has made him aware that being “designed and built specific” to meet humans’ needs does not negate the dangers that come along with a designed, perfected form of substitution.

Prosthetic Humans and the End of Humanity

The ending of AI: Artificial Intelligence has baffled critics and audiences alike since its theatrical release. Are the alien-like Specialists real, or does David imagine these beings as a means of explaining away Hobby’s entire line of child-substitute mechas? Does David actually see Monica again, or is this the robotic equivalent of a comforting dream before he dies? Frances Flannery-Dailey outlines nine possible ways of understanding how the film ends before noting that its ambiguity and length often frustrate audiences, leaving them with a negative impression of the film.

No matter which way we try to explain the ending of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, though, it is worth noting the presence of the Specialists, who claim that they are advanced beings that evolved from mechas following humanity’s extinction. Though Flannery-Daily correctly questions whether the Specialists actually exist or else are just dream-specters of David's “death”, their presence at the end of the film suggests at least the possibility of a distant future in which the prosthetic human has completely overtaken and supplanted the “real” humans that David so wanted to join. 

This potential ending, as well as David’s and Gigolo Joe’s poor treatment by "real" humans throughout the film, all demonstrate that the prosthetic humans in A.I. Artificial Intelligence suffer from more than the “epic status” that Smith and Morra assign to real-world prosthetics (2), or even the shortcomings visible in other versions of the prosthetic impulse as depicted in science fiction films. Instead, A.I. Artificial Intelligence becomes bleak when we realize that these prosthetic humans actually function very well, even when (wrongly) touted as miracle technologies (Smith and Morra 2), and that instead it is humans, their needs, and their visions that have fallen sadly short. Both David and Gigolo Joe do exactly what they were "designed and built specific” to do (A.I. Artificial Intelligence) and more, yet humanity has destroyed both them and itself by the end of the film regardless.


A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Dir. Steven Spielberg. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2001. 

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Author Biography

Maria Alberto, The University of Utah

Maria Alberto is working on her Ph.D. in literature at the University of Utah, where she pursues research interests in genre, adaption, fan studies, and popular culture. Recent projects have focused on platform studies, mythmaking in Tolkien’s work, and players’ use of the term “canon” in tabletop roleplaying games.