The Twilight Zone: The Lonely
156 episodes were produced, each on a different subject. So, of course it was inevitable that quite a few would discuss subjects pertinent to the nature of reality, machine sentience, and sensation. They didn't know anywhere near as much about these subjects back then as we do now, of course, with many of the episodes pre-dating the first actual VR interfaces by over a decade.
Still, whilst they didn't always get a lot of the details right, in their own stumbling way they often managed to deal with the gist of the issue, and present a take on things that still holds true and retains its value even a half century later. Sometimes the shows could even be considered progressive in our time, never mind in their own.
This episode is number seven in the series, The Lonely. It covers a fairly diverse set of topics, including:
The show opens on an asteroid, 5,000 miles across. An asteroid which strangely enough has blue skies (shown in greyscale), clouds of water vapour, an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere, strong sunlight, and weeds growing on its sandy desert surface. Still, from other sci-fi films of around the same era, this is what the mainstream really thought other planets and planetoids would be like, so probably best not to go too hard on them for this major blooper.
On the asteroid is a single metal shack and an old car that does not run. In the shack is a single man, one James Corey. He is a convicted murderer, sentenced to fifty years alone on an asteroid, millions of miles from civilisation.
He's not the only one. The asteroid is one of a field, and on each asteroid of the field, is a single human prisoner. The shack each prisoner is given has no bars, no lock on the door, and the inmate is free to wander about the surface. They may go anywhere they please, but they have no means to leave the surface and, save for a supply ship that comes once every three months, each is completely alone. Not even radio signals from early civilisation make it out to where Corey is.
The supply ship that does come, has a small crew of three, and stays only long enough to drop off supplies and chat briefly about news on Earth. The visit is usually 20 minutes in length and that';s it. No contact with another living being until the next 20 minute visit. It is a cruel and unusual punishment, and one which even at the start of the program, it is clear is highly controversial back on earth.
The commander of the supply ship, One Captain Allenby, is one of those who believe the punishment is far too harsh. As a deep space pilot himself, he's all too aware of the hazards of loneliness, and isolation – and he has two others on his crew. So, he doesn't mind shipping a little extra contraband to the prisoners from time to time.
For Corey he's had a soft spot and its readily apparent that he truly believes Corey is innocent of the charges laid against him. In one piece of dialogue they discuss again the situation that led up to the murder and Allenby agrees that by all rights that was self-defence, not murder.
Because of this soft-spot, Allenby has been shipping Corey more contraband than for most of the other prisoners. That old car sitting outside the shack? Shipped piece by piece from earth, for Corey to painstakingly assemble on the surface. It took him a full year to complete it, time which he is immensely grateful for, as it occupied his time with purpose.
On the fifteenth day of the sixth month of the fourth year of his fifty year sentence, Allenby's supply ship comes again, but the car is complete and Allenby knows this. However, he has managed to smuggle something else out to Corey; even his shipmates don't know what it is. A single large box which he hopes will occupy Corey far more than the car ever did.
He asks Corey to wait until the supply ship has left before opening the box – the contents of it could very well land Allenby in jail if they're discovered. Out of respect to his friend, Corey waits until the rocket's exhaust trail has faded before cracking the lid.
On-board the departing craft, one of the crew asks Allenby what was in the
Back with Corey, he has unpacked the box, and is staring at the (off-screen) contents, whilst holding the manual in his hands. His eyes keep darting between the two objects – the contents and the manual, as if he's watching the ball in a game of pong. He's obviously not sure what to believe, and eventually he starts to read the manual aloud.
“You are now the proud possessor of a robot built in the form of a woman. To all intents and purposes, this creature is a woman. Physiologically and psychologically she is a human being with a set of emotions and a memory track. The ability to reason and to think and to speak. She is beyond illness and under normal circumstances should have a lifespan similar to that of a normal human being. Her name is Alicia.”
During this time the camera has been slowly panning over to her, and at the sound of her name, the gynoid activates. After that little spiel it is crystal clear that the entity is a full gynoid, with an embodied artificial general intelligence, and her own thoughts and feelings. This is not a sexbot or a fembot, but a mentally capable being in a robotic body. The fun bit is of course how Corey, starved of human company as he is, reacts to this development.
The actress to her credit manages to dip into the uncanny valley just a little. Her movements are throughout, close but 'not quite right', erring on the side of the slightly jerky, and her tone of voice, whilst it conveys emotions perfectly well, remains with a hint of flatness to it at all times. This affection is obviously meant to convey to the audience that she is not quite the equal of a human, although she is capable of her own decisions.
She tells Corey her name is Alicia, confirming the name, and asks for his name, starting to engage him in conversation to find out more about him. Corey's not playing that game. He reacts with outrage, telling her to “get out of here”, to go away, he doesn't need her. He doesn't need a mechanical woman. He doesn't need a surrogate for real companionship.
In a very Turing Test alike situation, Alicia proves the not-quite-all-there nature of her artificial mind, by failing to understand his meaning, and attempting to repeat her earlier greetings and continue to learn more about him – this reaction was not expected input.
Corey grows more insistent that he doesn't want this. He was bettero ff alone than with this gynoid. If he can't have the real thing, he wants nothing.
Some time passes and Corey is back in his hut. Alicia is attempting to care for him. Looking after his needs, making small-talk, and essentially refusing to go away. Corey is less than pleased, and is doing his best to ignore her. When she sees the sweat on his brow she misreads it by making him a drink and offering it to him.(Remember, this is the 1950s, women's lib is all but unheard of.) Corey tells her to put it on the side, and she comments that if it sits on the side it will get warm. He scoffs and asks her how she could know something like this.
She replies that she can feel thirst, heat, cold, the touch of things. Corey asks if she can feel hunger or pain. She replies that she can feel both of these things. He refuses to believe it, certain machines cannot feel these things. He asks why she wasn't built to look like a machine, but instead has been “turned into a lie”.
This is substrate chauvinism, in its simplest form. The belief that if you change the materials – substitute flesh, sinew and bone for metal, electronics and pneumatics – that all else being equal, the end result is somehow of far less worth, far less capable if it is made of metal than if it is made of flesh. The flesh being is worthy of consideration as an equal, whilst the non-flesh, even if as smart, independent, understanding and capable as the first, is not, simply by virtue of the materials it is made of.
This is a common theme in dealing with both androids and gynoids, both in fiction and in our world, but very rarely is it expressed as bluntly and openly as it is here.
Corey goes on to talk with disgust about her synthetic flesh feeling so real, and her synthetic face being horrible, in that if he looks at it long enough, at the emotions and subtle movements flowing across her face, it makes him want to do things. It makes him believe that he's looking into the faceo f a beautiful woman. That combined with his belief that she is 'just a machine' is creating a situation which he just does not know how to handle.
Alicia puts her hand on his cheek, to try and begin to comfort him, but this was definitely the wrong stance to take. Corey's response is to pull her hand back, bending her arm unnaturally and walk out. Alicia's response is obviously pain-filled as her sensors do a very good job of emulating a nociceptor response. Something that modern robotics are definitely capable of.
She follows him outside where the argument increases, Corey ever more insistent that her very presence is mocking him, and what he cannot have. He wants a flesh woman, and instead he has a metal one, one whose initial dispositions have already been 'nudged' to care for her owner.
He grabs her arm and violently throws her to the ground telling her its impossible for him to hurt her; machines don't feel pain, whatever she claims to the contrary. She lands hard, and again in obvious pain. She begins to cry, with tears forming under her eyes, as he goes on and on about how she's just like a heap of junk.
She turns her head to look up at him, and that's when he sees she's upset; she's crying. That's when everything changes. He is forced into the realisation that the manual was not lying to him. Alicia is an emotional being. He berated her, hurt her, threw her to the ground. Overwhelmed with emotion she broke down just as any human would do. Whether this is an AI emotional simulation, or a true AGI emotional state doesn't matter at this moment.
Whether she is really an illusion or really an actual being, she responds the same way. She reacts with the exact same emotions a human would if put in that situation. She is thus the same as a human at least in this way. Hurt her, she feels pain. Starve her, she feels hunger. Interact with her, she feels emotions play, likely beyond her conscious control, in response to words spoken and actions meted out. Its at this point that Corey finally comes to realise that flesh or metal, he's dealing with an actual person. A companion.
Alicia states that she can feel loneliness too, and the final nail is driven into the coffin of his rejection.
Time passes, and as it does Alicia's personality blossoms. She doesn't have memories of the time before she was activated; all she has is the initial, slightly submissive personality, a set of emotions that are largely beyond her control, and a 'memory track'. What this latter means of course is as ~Corey supplies experiences and interaction with her, so her personality grows and alters, same as it would with anyone. However, without the stabilising experiences of a childhood or prior life to draw upon, Corey is her entire world, and every action leaves a major mark on her personality.
In short, over time, over the ensuing year in fact, she comes to be his ideal partner; her mind shaped to his needs and desires. Bereft of other beings on the asteroid, his is the only set of inputs she has, and so she becomes entirely devoted to him and nothing else.
Then, the horrible moment comes.
During a stargazing session one night, Alicia points out a star that's moving, coming closer. Its a ship, but a ship's not due for months yet. Something strange is going on. It flies over to one of the other asteroids, two months ahead of schedule. Then to another, a little while later.
In the morning, it descends onto Corey's Asteroid. As it comes closer, it is plain this is Allenby's rocket. Something very strange indeed is going on. Allenby emerges from the ship excitedly, followed by his crew. He seems extremely excited, and rushes to Corey's hut to tell him the great news. Corey's been pardoned. All the inmates are returning to Earth; the deep space isolation program has been repealed. But Corey, Corey's not going to prison on Earth, he's a free man!
They can't stop to jabber long though. The rocket is near its maximum weight capacity. Twenty human prisoners are on-board, and they've ejected all but the most essential equipment to reduce the mass of the ship to compensate. Even so, they only have a ten minute window before the orbit of the asteroid puts them too far from Earth to make it with the fuel they have left.
There's enough room for Corey and 15lbs of personal items, and that's it. But they have to leave right now. Corey is ecstatic. He's going home, he's free. Back to Earth, back to people, back to everything he left behind five years ago. He hugs Allenby, overcome with emotion. He's just going to get Alicia, and the two of them can ride the rocket home. He doesn't need any stuff!
Allenby had forgotten all about Alicia, and is forced to remind Corey that Alicia is just a robot, just a gynoid. If she comes, she has to come as personal items, filling that 15lb of mass allowance. How much mass is she? 110 lbs.
Corey cannot bring her; the woman he has grown to love. He doesn't even think of her as a robot, correcting Allenby several times. When Allenby uses the word 'robot', Corey replaces it with 'woman'. yes, he knows she is a gynoid, but she's not just a robot in the shape of a woman; she is a woman with her own personality, her own mind. She has blossomed into her own being, and he cannot contemplate life without her.
If he stays, it will be for life. With the program repealed, no more rockets will be out this way. Within three months his supplies will be exhausted and he will die of starvation and dehydration on the desert asteroid. If he goes, it will be without Alicia.
He argues that the ship needs to throw out some equipment, but there's nothing left to throw. He runs to get Alicia, to find her; refusing to leave without her. He finds her sitting on a rock watching the rocket, and tells her to show the men. Talk to them, show them she's a woman, a person. Not a robot but her own being; her own person.
Faced with people other than Corey, Alicia is at a loss for what to do, what to say. She's always hidden when the supply runs were made, as she's nto supposed to be there. She doesn't know how to react to the newcomers, and just stares blankly, unsure of what to do.
Allenby tells Corey he has no choice, and since Corey won't come without Alicia, he draws his sidearm and fires into Alicia's head, blowing her face off in a shower of sparks.With Alicia's brain circuitry half-destroyed, she malfunctions, falling to the dirt, and spasming. She Calls out Corey's name desperately in increasingly broken English as she shuts down to lay motionless.
Corey is dumbstruck, horrified as the woman he had come to love, lays there in the dirt. He turns to Allenby and Allenby's two crew, his face a riot of emotion. He is obviously contemplating lunging for the Captain on the spot, and trying to kill him, or face death at that gun himself. He stands unmoving just like Alicia had moments before; his mind frantically trying to decide what to do, how to react.
Finally, Corey takes note of what the captain is saying, that the illusion is over, its all behind Corey now, that it's time to come home, time to come back to the rocket. Allenby tells him that he will only be leaving behind loneliness.
There is a long pregnant pause, whilst Corey looks down at Alicia's body, and then finally he turns to Allenby and says. "I must remember that" In a flat, toneless voice. "I must remember to keep that in mind".
He heads back to the ship ahead of the others, with an expression on his face the others miss, that hints that Allenby might be lucky to still be breathing when the ship makes it back to Earth, if they make it back at all. Corey has nothing to live for now, and the captain killed the person who was all but his wife.
As the episode winds to a close, the narrrator's voice can be heard, scrolling over the landscape. “On a microscopic piece of sand that floats through space, is a fragment of a man's life. Left to rust is the place he lived in, and the machines he used. Without use they will disintegrate from the wind and the sand and the years that act upon them. All of Mr Corey's machines. Including the one made in his image, kept alive by love.”