If you grew up on Saturday morning cartoons, the opening of M3gan is like a Proustian madeleine in TV-commercial form, a gaudy, blaring 30-second spot for children’s toys that promise unending hours of fun. And what follows next will be just as familiar: the sharp feeling of disappointment. The ad for “Purrpetual Pets” promises fuzzy computerized companions that will be tireless playmates for as long as you can keep them charged. The one we see 8-year-old Cady (Violet McGraw) playing with in the backseat, as her quarreling parents navigate a mountain road in a whiteout blizzard, mostly seems to make fart noises while prompting her to feed it simulated treats.
Although M3gan eventually becomes a movie about a technology so successful that it surpasses both its creator’s dreams and her control, it starts off as a reminder that, in the vast majority of cases, the promises that code could take on the functions of humans have either ended in failure or, just as often, a scaling-down of expectations. Instead of knowledgeable clerks or informed critics—or even, like, friends—to recommend what we should watch or listen to or read next, we have algorithms that make such sophisticated inferences as suggesting that having just purchased one car, we might be interesting in shopping for another. We drop our collective jaws at the idea that an A.I. chatbot can write like a human, never mind if that human is as moderately skilled as a 16-year-old bullshitter. An obscure B-side by a beloved band becomes their most-streamed song, not because it’s a hidden gem, but because, according to one service’s algorithm, it’s the song of theirs that sounds the most generically like them, the middest of the mid.
The task assigned to M3gan’s titular robot, who is embodied by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis, is an impossible one for most flesh-and-blood adults: helping a child navigate a horrible trauma. As Cady’s parents are telling her to get off her iPad, and then squabbling over who’s meant to be enforcing the limits on screen time, the car is hit by a truck, and both parents are killed. That leaves Cady to live with her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), who designs toys for children but has no idea how to fit such a child into her life. Gemma’s solution is to combine the problem of figuring out how to care for Cady with the biggest hurdle she’s facing at work: designing the next-gen successor to Purrpetual Pets, an A.I.-powered companion that will do more than just beg kids for food and pass virtual gas. That’s M3gan, who looks like a 4-foot-tall American Girl doll and whose only directive is to shield Cady from “physical and emotional harm.”
The problem is that shielding a child from all harm is, as any parent can tell you, not only impossible but undesirable. Obviously you don’t want your children to get hit by a car or humiliated by a bully, but you do want to expose them to “natural consequences,” the benign-but-not-too benign outcomes that happen when you simply don’t interfere. You can warn a child a million times not to touch a hot pot, but it only takes doing it once for the lesson to sink in. Tell them the family dog went to live on a nice farm upstate and you may spare them some anguish, but you’ve also missed an opportunity to teach them two invaluable lessons: one, that everything dies, and two, that you’ll tell them the truth even when it’s hard.
M3gan doesn’t have that perspective, in part because she’s a prototype rushed into beta testing so that Gemma, whose tech-bro boss doesn’t approve of time off for parenting, won’t be fired. When a therapist tries to help Cady work through the grief of her parents’ death, all M3gan sees is a woman who’s made a little girl cry—and she does not approve. Her job isn’t to foster psychological healing, it’s just to keep Cady’s attention elsewhere, away from the sad things. As one of Gemma’s coworkers puts it, “She’s not a solution. She’s just a distraction.”
M3gan presents itself as yet another cautionary tale about the dangers of artificial intelligence: What if we give a machine the power to learn with no moral or ethical guidance, except to protect one creature at the expense of all others? But it’s really much simpler than that. M3gan doesn’t turn out to be a freaky supergenius. As one of Gemma’s fellow coders points out, most of her verbal responses are just spruced-up word salad. She knows that children are soothed by lullabies, but she thinks that the ideal song to dry an 8-year-old’s tears is Sia’s “Titanium.” She’s a living, so to speak, illustration of the difference between information and knowledge, and knowledge and wisdom.
The problem, though, isn’t really the machines. It’s the people giving them their cues. In a sense, M3gan’s real monster is Cady, whose uncontrolled emotions are linked to a technology with no means of tempering them. Someone once said that if looks could kill, every child would be a murderer, and M3gan makes that insight concrete. Like the devices in our hands, her only task is to serve her user’s immediate needs—to pump out constant stimulation and to learn with every input how to better occupy our minds. A parent’s ultimate goal is to teach children to live without them, but the technologies we’ve designed are meant to never let us turn them off.