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Friday, April 19, 2024

‘After Yang’ Will Make You Grieve For a Robot

Someone at a robot company once told me a story about one of its bomb disposal machines. The soldiers who had been using the robot in Afghanistan were dismayed after it returned from repairs. They said that the robot's shiny new parts and casing—lacking the bullet holes and blast scars they knew—made it seem as if the machine itself had, in a sense, died.

It might seem odd, grieving a robot. But for anyone who’s seen After Yang, the beautiful and strange new movie by the South Korean filmmaker Kogonada, it won’t.

The film, which is based on a short story from a tech-obsessed collection by Alexander Weinstein, is set in some vague future version of America where life seems comfortable, pastel-colored, and bland. It follows a futuristic nuclear family that is both racially diverse and android inclusive. Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) bought Yang—a highly realistic humanoid robot, or “technosapien”—to help teach their adopted daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), about her Chinese heritage. Yang achieves this mostly by blurting out “Chinese fun facts” at opportune moments. But he serves a more meaningful role as an older brother and de facto caregiver to young Mika. Jake is too distracted trying to keep his tea shop afloat, and Kyra is often away on business, unable to pay much attention.

Yang dies, or rather malfunctions, early on, during a synchronized dance routine the family performs in its living room one evening in a virtual contest against other families. Caught in an infinite loop, Yang repeats the same movement over and over, an act that appears comical at first but quickly turns grotesque.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the “technos” of this not-quite-dystopian sort-of near future not only look and act like you or me, they decompose, too. You’d think Apple would’ve come up with something sleeker and more durable than flesh, but still. So Yang’s glitch needs to be fixed before his body goes bad. And since Jake bought the robot secondhand, to save a little money, Yang cannot be fixed by the unhelpful and animatronic guy at the future equivalent of Geek Squad. He cheerfully offers to recycle poor Yang instead.

Knowing how much Mika loves Yang, and how much the family relies on his help, Jake decides to take the decaying bot to a shady backstreet repair guy who discovers a hidden feature that allows Yang to capture short clips of footage each day. The vaguely paranoid mechanic suspects this to be the latest evidence of Big Tech surveillance, and while he can’t bring Yang back, he does agree to break into the robot’s black box illegally to recover the data.

Some unstated things in After Yang feel particularly unsettling. Although technology has melted into the background, it seems that surveillance remains pervasive. Prejudice is also booming. Some of it is directed toward Asians, seemingly because of some unspoken conflict between the US and China, some is directed at clones, which seem to be necessary and commonplace. Jake shuns his neighbor because of his cloned offspring; a poster in the repair shop bears the slogan: “Ain’t no yellow in the red, white, and blue.”

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The movie also raises some interesting questions about privacy, our relationship with technology, and the power behind it. Future Facebook would no doubt love to have a robot in every home. Mostly, though, it is about processing grief and the loss of a loved one (or a loved thing that feels alive).

Kate Darling, a researcher at MIT who studies human-robot relationships, notes that mourning the death of a robot is hardly futuristic. After Jibo, a more animated precursor to Alexa, was discontinued in 2019, some families openly grieved its demise. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found a similar outpouring of sadness on social media after NASA’s Mars Rover Opportunity was declared dead in 2019. Darling also told me about funerals held in Japan for Sony’s robot dog Aibo, many of them organized by a man who ran an independent Aibo repair shop. “I bet that was part of the inspiration for this film actually,” she says.

As Jake watches Yang’s recollections he recognizes a rich and touching inner life, spanning many more years than his apparent age might suggest. Yang cared for another family before Jake’s, and he experienced whatever the robot equivalent of love, or infatuation, might be. It’s through these memories, and through his own, that Jake also processes his own sense of grief.

The idea that it might become totally normal to treat beings that behave in ways that are indistinguishable from a human as pieces of property or lovable appliances feels pretty uncomfortable. It’s just as well that we have no idea how to build truly intelligent machines yet. But then, Mika doesn’t see Yang that way at all. He helps her make sense of the world and what it means to be alive, and really, who cares if your big brother is mechanical if he’s also kind?

I watched After Yang with my son, who is roughly the same age as Mika. Afterward he wanted to talk about our cat, who passed away a few months ago. It also occurred to me that, since then, I have bought him a growing number of robot toys.

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