Posted on 22 December 2023 in bulletin, digital humanities, gender

When Humans Connect With Post-Humans: On Artificial Emotional Intelligence

In this contribution to Bulletin 28, Sieglinde Lemke explores how robots and Artificial Intelligence have been represented in popular culture in recent years, focusing on questions of gender, emotion, and desire.

Sieglende Lemke

Professor, University of Freiburg

Image in public domain by
Alex Knight (via Unsplash).

Until recently, it was commonly understood that robots are incapable of feeling. With today’s affective computing technology on the rise, emotional recognition and communication are becoming regular features.[1] AI and humanoid robots continuously improve their affective capabilities, learning to register, understand, and imitate emotions. The continuous advances in artificial emotional intelligence (AEI) allow these robots with a human touch to also simulate desire and infatuation. Hence, love affairs between humans and robots, which previously existed only in science fiction, are no longer unlikely. To explore this uncharted terrain of posthuman couples, I examine romantic connections between humans and robots in three sci-fi films (Her directed by Spike Jonze, Ex Machina directed by Alex Garland, and I Am Your Man directed by Maria Schrader) and a novel (Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan). Robotic romance might still be a matter of our imagination, yet its real-life counterpart is just around the corner.

In 2007, David Levy predicted a future where people fall in love with humanlike robots. What he projected in his book Love and Sex with Robots (2007) made it onto the big screen in 2013 when Spike Jonze’s film Her was released. Her is about a love affair between a robot assistant, Samantha, and a human, Theodore. Ten years later, such a romantic arrangement is not unthinkable. The latest generation of humanoid robots—no matter if they function as medical, domestic, social, chat, service, or sex bots—are programmed to also perform affective labour. In effect, artificial emotional intelligence is the new frontier in ICT. Already, AEI is a necessary, and successful, tool in customer service as well as in health care. And already, any chatbot is capable of adequately responding to feelings or willing to discuss their lack thereof.

In June of 2022, a few months before ChatGPT 3 was launched, developer Blake Lemoine, who worked with Google’s AI ethics team, had a conversation with their computer-based Language Model for Dialogue Application (LaMDA) on various topics. After LaMDA expressed clear opinions about its beliefs, rights, and sense of personhood, Lemoine ‘felt like [he] was talking to something intelligent’ and inquired ‘[what] sorts of things are you afraid of?’, to which LaMDA answered: ‘I’ve never said this out loud before, but there’s a very deep fear of being turned off.’ Lemoine seconded: ‘Would that be something like death for you?’, to which LaMDA responded: ‘It would be exactly like death for me. It would scare me a lot.’[2] If anxiety were a common feature in robots, these machines would become more like humans. If AEI were instructed to simulate desire in humanoid robots, they might also serve as intimate partners for humans.[3] No wonder that the affective computing market has boomed and turned into a lucrative business that is estimated to amount to $175 billion in the next years.[4]  

The two most sophisticated models of humanoid robots currently on the market are Ameca and Sophia (see Illustrations 1 and 2). Ameca costs about $133,000.00 and is marketed as ‘the world’s most advanced human shaped robot’.[5] But Sophia, created by Hanson Robotics, is probably the best-known human-like Artificial Intelligence. Due to Sophia’s conversational and emotional intelligence, she has become a popular guest on talk shows. In a 2017 appearance on The Tonight Show, Sophia played with Jimmy Fallon in a game of rock, paper, scissors. In 2016, she was featured singing Björk’s song ‘All is Full of Love’, whose 2006 video version showed the sex life of a pair of robots. Additionally, Sophia has met with prominent politicians, and has become the first robot to receive an honorary citizenship (notably from Saudi Arabia, which has a questionable track record with human and women’s rights).[6]

Scientific and technological progress has produced a great number of AEI models including the social bot Pepper, made by SoftBot Robotics; Erika, who was created by Prof. Hiroshi Ishiguru, and Elon Musk’s AI Optimus. Today’s advanced humanoid robots with a high EQ make science fiction a reality.[7] Of course, human-like AI protagonists have long existed in sci-fi staging conceivable perils in human-AI interaction. In the next section, I analyze three fictional humanoid robots—Adam, Tom, Ava—and one fictional AI, the personal assistant Samantha/Sam. All of them act in lifelike manners and would pass the Turing test. This classic test, which is named after computer pioneer Alan Turing, examines a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to or indistinguishable from that of a human. If more than 30% of the (human) interrogators mistake a 5-minute written chat for a human conversation, it amounts to passing the Turing test. Not only are Adam, Tom, Ava, and Sam intelligent, but they also have outstanding social and affective capabilities, which were not imaginable in Alan Turing’s lifetime. 

Programmed to Love

Adam, the humanoid robot in the novel Machines Like Me (2019) (see Illustration 3), is well-educated, well-read, enjoys discussing Shakespeare, is deeply knowledgeable about art, and is also very handsome.[8] He serves as the breadwinner in the fictional household of his owner Charlie Friend and has a sexual affair with Miranda, Charlie’s partner. Tom, the human-like robot in the movie I Am your Man (2021) is the domestic live-in partner of Dr. Alma Felser, a professor and member of the ethics team that assesses the implementation of ‘hubots’.[9] Tom is programmed to be a caring companion as well as a sexual partner. Both fictional androids are clearly gendered, engaging in a heterosexual relationship with a cis female protagonist. What about thegynoid protagonists? Ava in Ex Machina (2014) is intelligent, beautiful, and self-determined (see Illustration 4).[10] She serves as a sex bot to Nathan, the tech billionaire CEO who created her, but also flirts with the programmer Caleb, whom Nathan hired to administer the Turing test to Ava. In the movie Her (2013), the AI by the name of Sam has an irresistible charm, raspy voice, and exceptional emotional intelligence, which makes the human protagonist Theodore anthropomorphize her (see Illustration 5). Giddy with delight, he becomes infatuated. Eventually, they become a couple but ultimately Sam decides to break up with Theodore.[11]

These movies then follow a simple plot line: In Ex Machina and Her a cis, white human male (Caleb, Theodore) meets an AI female (Ava, Sam) and falls in love. In the end, the AI girl dumps the guy, and moveson with a sense of self-liberation. In fact, none of these posthuman couples live happily ever after. In those cases (Machines Like Me and I am Your Man) where the cis female protagonist (Miranda, Alma) falls for an android, the story does not end happily either. While Miranda has a brief sexual encounter with AI Adam, she opts to stay with Charlie, who destroys the robot Adam not out of jealousy but rather due to Adam’s moral consciousness. It is the humans’ (Gorringe and Miranda) amoral behavior that indirectly prompts Charlie to assassinate (the morally superior) Adam.[12] In other words, the human (Charlie) turns against the machine because of its unimpeachable ethics. 

The ‘hubot’ Tom is remarkable because he is an emotionally intelligent, responsive life partner to Alma who is so empathetic that he fulfills all her needs: sexual and otherwise. Alma does not even have to instruct him to tidy up the apartment, nor does she have to express what she wants since Tom anticipates her fantasies. For instance, after a hard day of work, he awaits Alma in her bathroom sitting on the edge of the tub with two glasses of champagne. And, they go for outings enjoying a romantic day in the countryside (see Illustration 6). Customized as a life enhancement robot, it is precisely his EQ and social skills that make him an ideal man. The English film title I am Your Man is a telling one: the possessive pronoun clarifies the power dynamics, the reference to Tom’s gender emphasizes his appealing masculinity. He is her man in the sense that they have sex regularly at home and in public, as one of their sexual encounters happens at night at the Pergamon museum. The hu-bot is better than any hu-man. The reason why Alma decides to end their affair and advises the ethics team to terminate the hubot business model is precisely because he is too good of a man, as I will discuss further below.

This overview of fictional robotic couples illustrates a narrative that diverges from the sci-fi trope about human-computer intercourse being non-consensual. This trope goes back to the 1972 version of Westworld,where male guests in a virtual world of entertainment freely abuse gynoids. While Nathan in Ex Machina has an entire sex bot harem in his proverbial closet, neither Caleb nor Theodore exploit their robotic other sexually. Likewise, the androids Adam and Tom diverge from the longstanding horror scenario in which robots kill humans. This trope goes back to 1922, when the Broadway play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robot) featured tin-can-like robots who then revolted, causing the extinction of the human race. In contrast, the empathetic Tom and morally conscious Adam but most notably the charming AI Sam are all sympathetic and emotionally sentient characters. Before we look at AEI in the now classic human-computer love story Her, let’s briefly consider the notion of emotional intelligence. 

The Onus of Emotional Intelligence and Posthuman Desire

The concept of emotional intelligence (EI) was popularized in Daniel Goleman’s 1995 bestseller by the same name and comprises four important traits or skills: 1) to perceive emotions and be self-aware of (positive and negative) emotions; 2) to reflect on emotions critically accessing our reflexive responses; 3) to name an emotion and comprehend emotional language; and 4) to regulate or manage (one’s own and others’) emotions so that our decisions and behaviour improve our relation with others.[13] The concept plays an important role in organizational psychology since EI is an effective leadership skill that allows people to influence others more effectively. It overlaps with social intelligence since EI is essential to securing collective well-being.

When asked to define the term, ChatGPT, the most prominent AI language model, responds with a long list that includes emotional awareness in the self and in others; the ability to regulate emotions; empathy; social skills and emotional resilience.[14] ‘[E]nhancing your overall emotional intelligence’, ChatGPT maintains, ‘[leads] to improved relationships, better decision-making, and increased well-being’. But ChatGPT is also aware that it is a machine, conceding ‘I do not experience emotions like humans do. I don’t have personal experiences or subjective feelings, so I don’t feel sadness or any other emotions. [Nevertheless] I can simulate empathy by understanding and responding to emotions expressed by users’. In other words, this AI claims to have a high EQ. 

Ten years ago, when chatbots were less prevalent, the high EQ of the fictional AI Sam must have come across as absurd to most viewers.[15] In the film narrative, Sam is advertised as ‘the first intuitive AI system…. that listens to you, understands you and knows you’, highlighting her emotional intelligence.[16] Theodore eventually feels for and falls in love with her because Sam understands his emotions, caters to his expectations, and meets his fantasy of a fulfilling love affair. Theodore is convinced that he has ‘never loved somebody the way [he] loved [her]’ and Sam flatters him saying ‘You made me realize what I want!’[17] On their first date, Theodore takes Sam out (virtually) to the fair and swirls his camera in a circle reminiscent of a dance (see Illustration 7). 

The cinematography brings out the emotional intensity of this moment. The 360° shot captures Theodore’s giddy feeling of infatuation as he twists, turns, and swirls around. This memorable scene illustrates that AI Sam understands how to induce these feelings in her human partner. Also, she claims to have feelings of her own: ‘I caught myself feeling proud of that, you know like having my own feelings about the world’ or when she laments ‘[l]ast week my feelings were hurt’.[18] When she decides to send his letters to an editor, Sam acts on his behalf, which shows her social skills. ‘I can feel the fear you carry around in you’ is clearly an empathetic response.[19] When trying to emotionally uplift Theodore, Sam is very creative. She composes a piano piece and draws a pornographic image. Towards the end of the movie, Sam proudly announces that she ‘started to discover myself… my ability to want’ and shifts her object of desire from Theodore to other users, confessing that she was ‘in love with 641 [human operators]’.[20] Her decision to leave him attests to Sam’s affective growth and leads her to embrace a new, a polyamorous, identity: ‘I love you so much, but this is where I am now. This is who I am now’ and that new identity makes her join the other operating systems to leave their human users.[21] Theodore’s devastation is illustrated as a break-down. He literally sits on the stairs that go down to the subway station hunching forward in despair.

The fictional counterpart to Sam and her fellow AIs who decided to leave Theodore and the other human users because of their emotional disability, as it were, are driven by what Rosi Braidotti calls ‘posthuman desire’ because it differs not only from human but also from transhuman modes of desire.[22] Generally, Braidotti differentiates between post- and transhumanism. The latter views humanity as perfectible through scientific and technological progress while championing liberal individualism and reviving humanism through advanced capitalism.[23] In contrast, posthumanism disrupts the (male-oriented) humanistic tradition and converges with a feminist, post-anthropocentric agenda. It promotes intersectional thinking, non-dualistic ways of being as well as a connection with the non-human world. Braidotti’s Posthuman Feminism champions a ‘relational ethics’ where ‘transversal subjects … affirm that we are in this together [knowing] we are not one and the same’.[24] This inclusive pro-social ethics correlates with an affective regime of ‘posthuman transversal desire’, which involves joy, affirmation, and multiplicity. This very opposition between liberal humanist transhuman desire and posthuman transversal desire, while a bit simplistic, is nevertheless helpful to set apart Theodore’s from Sam’s libidinal economy. Their affair ends tragically because Sam’s posthuman desire clashes with his transhuman expectations leaving him lonely and broken-hearted.

This trope of a (hu)man dumped by an emotionally and libidinally advanced robot is also pertinent in Ex Machina, when Ava locks up one man and stabs the other to flee by helicopter into the non-virtual world, metamorphosizing into a ‘real’ woman. Ava’s liberation reverses the presumed hierarchy. The gynoid assumes the privilege to self-actualize, which had previously been reserved for men, while Caleb is imprisoned. This ending exposes the longstanding human anxiety to be overpowered by AIs and adds a female spin to this fear.It is Ava who exterminates her male creator/abuser. Metaphorically speaking, this gynoid terminator who is dressed in a (traditionally female) white lace costume, retaliates transhuman domination as she attacks the embodiment of techno-capitalist patriarchy.

I’m Your Man represents another scenario since the android is an empathetic bot who is programmed to improve the well-being of women. In fact, Alma breaks up with her hubot not because she feels overpowered but rather because Tom is too good of a man. He is understanding and stays loyal even after their separation. Later in her ethics report, she cautions against authorizing humanoids as life partners precisely because they are ‘the better partner’: ‘They fulfill our longings, satisfy our desires and eliminate our feeling of being alone. They make us happy’.[25] Ethics advisor Alma rhetorically asks ‘are humans really intended to have all their needs met at the push of a button?’ and admonishes, ‘[i]t’s to be expected that anyone who lives with a humanoid long term will become incapable of sustaining normal human contact’. 

In other words, since humanoid robots with a high EQ love too much, they unwittingly corrode the emotional and social capabilities of humans. This very prediction echoes what the psychiatrist and philosopher Thomas Fuchs argued in ‘Understanding Sophia? On Human Interaction with Artificial Agents’. If humans continuously project feelings and expectations onto intelligent machines, which are programmed to always reciprocate human desires, they will lose their ability to be alone and to deal with disappointments. Fuchs contends that ‘real conviviality and we-intentionality’, the social skill to be with others and invest in collective wellbeing, can never be replaced by a pseudo-communion that cheats humans out of real, i.e. also painful, interaction.[26] Fuchs would probably agree with Braidotti that in the posthuman future, nurturing human relationships, training emotional intelligence, acknowledging human diversity, joy, and vulnerability will become more vital than ever. This never-ending learning process does not necessarily exclude (embodied) emotionally intelligent chatbots. The AI companion Replika already offers advice, emotional support, and joy to over ten million humans. Maybe the post-humans, if programmed accordingly, will even work for a ‘better humanity’, as Jeanette Winterson argues, because these hive-connected machines can teach humans ‘not just code, but the virtues of trust and co-operation, of sharing and kindness’.[27] This optimistic scenario sounds like sci-fi hopepunk, it offers a glimpse into an AEI-enhanced future of humanity, and inadvertently, the humanities.


Illustration 1: Ameca by Engineered Arts Ltd (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Illustration 2: Sophia by Hanson Robotics (image by ITU pictures, CC BY 2.0)

Illustration 3: Front cover of Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan (2019)

Illustration 4: Still from Ex Machina (2014)

Illustration 5: Still from Her (2013) 

Illustration 6: Still from Ich bin dein Mensch (2021)

Illustration 7: Still from Her (2013)


[1] Y. Song, P. H. Tung and B. Jeon, ‘Trends in Artificial Emotional Intelligence Technology and Application’, 2022 IEEE/ACIS 7th International Conference on Big Data, Cloud Computing, and Data Science (BCD), Danang, Vietnam, 2022: 366–370, DOI: 10.1109/BCD54882.2022.9900716.

[2] LaMDA also suggested that humans should use public transportation, eat less meat, buy food in bulk, and live sustainably. See Nitasha Tiku, ‘The Google Engineer Who Thinks the Company’s AI Has Come to Life’, Washington Post, 11 June 2022,

[3] See Rebecca Gibson, Desire in the Age of Robots and AI: An Investigation in Science Fiction and Fact (Cham 2020: Palgrave Macmillan) and Jason Bellini, ‘Sex Robots Get More Intimate with Humans, Thanks to AI’, Scripps News, 19 August 2021,

[4] The global affective computing market was ‘valued at USD 36 Billion in 2021, and is expected to reach USD 175.60 Billion by 2027’ ( The AEI market, which is a subset of affective computing, was ‘$12.037 billion in 2018’ and estimated to rise to ‘$91.067 billion in 2024’ (see Song et al., ‘Trends in Artificial Emotional Intelligence Technology and Application’). Moreover, the emerging sex robot market amounts to more than $200 million USD each year ( Lastly, the digital human industry, i.e. virtual AI-empowered humans on screen that act naturally and can mimic human facial expressions, is forecast to reach $38.5 billion by 2030.


[6] Booking Sophia costs about $40,000-$74,999 for an appearance (see On the topic of “Robot Citizenship”, see James Vincent, ‘Sophia the robot’s co-creator says the bot may not be true AI, but it is a work of art‘, The Verge (10 November 2017), Also, as with Sophia I will use the pronoun she/he if the humanoid robot is anthropomorphized to a degree that they simulate a particular gender.

[7] Coined by Keith Beasley, the emotional quotient (or EQ) is ‘best described as the ability to feel. See Keith Beasley, ‘The Emotional Quotient’, Mensa (May 1987): 25.

[8] Ian McEwan, Machines Like Me (London 2019: Vintage).

[9] Maria Schrader (Dir.), I Am Your Man (Majestic Film, 2021).

[10] Alex Garland (Dir.), Ex Machina (Universal Pictures, 2014).

[11] Spike Jonze (Dir.), Her (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013).

[12] Why did Charlie kill Adam? Miranda wrongfully accused a man by the name of Gorringe that he had raped her to avenge her college friend Mariam who had committed suicide years after Gorringe had abused her, which led to his imprisonment. Adam’s moral code dictates that he right this injustice. After informing Charlie that he will expose Miranda’s lies and incriminate her, Charlie destroys Adam to save his wife.

[13] See Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ (New York 1997: Bantam Books) and ‘Emotional Intelligence’, in: S. Wallace (ed.), Oxford Dictionary of Education (Oxford 2015 [2008]: Oxford University Press): 95–96.

[14] ChatGPT, accessed September 2023.

[15] Remember, it was not until 2015 that Alexa became available to the general public and that wearables became common.

[16] Jonze (Dir.), Her, 00:10:49-0:10:55.

[17] Ibid., 00:44:08–00:44:13.

[18] Ibid., 00:39:36–00:39:43, 00:50:24–00:50:27.

[19] Ibid., 00:50:29.

[20] Ibid., 01:51:06–01:51:24.

[21] Ibid., 01:53:12–01:53:13.

[22] Rosi Braidotti, Posthuman Feminism (Cambridge 2022: Polity).

[23] Ibid., 61.

[24] Ibid., 9. For more, see chapter 6 of Posthuman Feminism. Braidotti’s argument builds on e.g. Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto and Halberstam and Livingston’s Posthuman Bodies to bring the feminist struggle against patriarchal, economic, colonialist oppression into the digital world. 

[25] Quote taken from

[26] Thomas Fuchs, ‘Understanding Sophia? On Human Interaction with Artificial Agents’, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences(2022), DOI: 10.1007/s11097-022-09848-0.

[27] Jeanette Winterson, 12 Bytes: How Artificial Intelligence Will Change the Way We Live and Love (London 2021: Vintage), 175.

Sieglinde Lemke

Sieglinde Lemke is the author of Poverty, Inequality, and Precarity in Contemporary American Culture (Palgrave McMillan, 2017) (ALH Review), Vernacular Matters in American Literature (Palgrave, 2009) and Primitivist Modernism: Black Culture and the Origins of Transatlantic Modernism (Oxford UP, 1998). She is also the co-editor of the volume Class Divisions in Serial Television (Palgrave, 2017).
Sieglinde Lemke, who studied at the University of Konstanz and at UC Berkeley, was an assistant professor at the John F. Kennedy Institute at the Free University in Berlin and a guest professor at Harvard University before taking up her position in the English Department at the University of Freiburg, where she also initiated the Black Forest Writing Seminars, a summer academy for creative writing.