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The Man from the Tin Can: Androids Learning to be Imperfect

I remember reading a book when I was a kid about a perfect android child who is unexpectedly delivered to a family’s doorstep in a giant metal can. He’s all dried out but comes with a nutrient solution that they use to reconstitute him.  He was designed to be a stereotype of an ideal child, unfailingly well-behaved and high achieving, which turns out to be somewhat unnerving and uncomfortable for the humans he encounters until he learns to be more fallibly human-like.  It’s by Christine Nöstlinger and the English title is Conrad: The Factory-Made Boy, but I like that the original Austrian title from 1975 translates as “Konrad, or the Child from the Tin Can.” I found myself thinking about it as I watched Maria Schrader’s rom-com-with-android film, I’m Your Man (Ich bin dein Mensch).

It’s like watching a romantic comedy where someone tries to set up Dana Scully from the X-Files with an android. Alma (Maren Eggert) is an archeologist at an underfunded museum in Berlin whose boss talks her into participating in a study on human companionship which requires her to spend three weeks living with a custom-designed android boyfriend. She is introduced to Tom (Dan Stevens) at a restaurant full of happy couples talking and dancing. She’s clearly skeptical and determined not to be manipulated by the romantic setting, but her prickly attitude dissolves into delight when she realizes that all of the other people are holograms and she can swipe her hands right through them. She counters Tom’s initial attempts to woo her with romantic lines about her eyes by asking him about poetry, but her questions are peppered with details designed to highlight his robotic nature: “What are the sixth and seventh lines of your favorite poem?” and “What’s the second-to-last letter of that poem?” Then he whisks her off to rumba with him – again, think Scully doing the rumba with an android – but he malfunctions and has to be carted off to be recalibrated before she can take him home with her.

Tom was designed specifically to suit Alma based on an in depth set of questions, but her reactions to his out of the box conversation and assumptions about what she will want from him range from nonplussed to outright ornery. He’s clearly perplexed by why his programming isn’t working, but he greets each failure with a detached birdlike scrutiny and very slight pause for analysis that is oddly easy to empathize with. His feelings aren’t hurt, but he is obviously confused by the reality of what someone else wants, which is relatable. He wears an artfully open robe over boxer shorts and makes her breakfast, which she says she has no time to eat. He sets up a romantic scenario for her, which he ends up defending by quoting the statistic that “ninety-three percent of German women dream of this.” He does all of the things that his algorithms tell him the perfect partner would do, but Alma acts like she just wants to study him like a specimen, hand in her report, and get on with her work.

As long as Alma doesn’t see Tom as a person, the net result is that she’s essentially talking to herself and he is a catalyst. Any time there’s conflict between them, he’s programmed to backtrack and adjust to please her, so the conflict ends up being more between Alma and herself. It puts her face to face with the places where what she believes about herself fail to match up with how she actually behaves.  He keeps prodding her to find out what she really wants and why so he can account for it in his algorithm, which means she has to try to answer that question while staring straight at a version of what she theoretically wants that has been created for her. He has the capacity to learn to do whatever she wants him to, but when it comes to other people, perfection is not…well…perfect.  

As I recall, one of the most unnerving things about Konrad for his new family is confronting the discrepancy between what people might say they want a child to act like or be and how they feel when actually confronted with the perfect embodiment of it. People don’t really want perfect children or partners. Perceived perfection in other people breeds insecurity. It feels robotic and unnatural, even if the other person isn’t literally a robot.  It leaves no room for give and take in our imperfections. In the case of Konrad, it turns out that he was accidentally delivered to the wrong family but by the time the company comes to take him back, he’s not the same android. His new family loves him and he has decided that he wants to stay with them.

Philosophical questions around androids or robots and how human they are is very common territory in science fiction, and when Alma’s boss is tying to convince her to participate in the study he tells her that her feedback could have important implications for whether or not androids should be given the same rights as human beings. I was kind of expecting the film to move in that direction, but Alma seems less concerned with whether or not Tom is able to do anything beyond his programming and more with what it would do to her to be with someone who is complex enough to seem human but would literally do anything she wanted. People will say that they would do anything for the ones they love, but they don’t mean it on that granular a level.

I’m Your Man does a really good job of using the rom com formula to explore whether that difference really matters in a way that is entertaining, charming, and emotionally relatable. Tom is able to take what Alma says and does, analyze what she wants, then behave in ways that she doesn’t expect. She ends up saying things out loud to him that she might not have been willing or ready to admit to herself. Knowing that he is an android allows Alma to get through the messiness of dealing with her own ambivalence and conflicting emotions without him getting frustrated and walking away. Believing that he is not a human being and will be gone in three weeks means that she feels like she can open up and share things with him that she might never feel able to tell someone else without fear of judgement or fallout. Ironically, she ends up being able to be more honest and get closer to him in some ways precisely because he’s an android.

Is an android really any more alien than another human being? Tom obviously wants to fulfill his programming, and when Alma tells him to leave he considers recycling himself. Does it really matter why he wants what he wants? I don’t really know why I want what I want, and if pressed to explain it I would probably try to find logic in it, which is the basis of programming. One thing I want but will probably never get, though, is an X-Files episode where Scully and Mulder have to sign up for android partners for an undercover mission. I imagine it would end with Scully giving a philosophical report much like Alma’s.    

~~~

alex MacFadyen has no idea what the second to last letter of his favorite poem is.

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