In Justin Timberlake’s recent video for “Filthy,” Timberlake appears in Steve Jobs cosplay, controlling a robot as it dances provocatively around an Apple-style press conference.
The robot is clearly humanoid with a somewhat natural-looking face, but its shiny surface and exposed armatures read as totally mechanical. The contrast says: Something is off about this robot.
I couldn’t escape the feeling I’d seen this sort of robot design before, and in a strikingly similar context. Then I realized where I recognized it from: the seminal video for Björk’s “All Is Full of Love.”
Directed by Chris Cunningham, Björk’s 1999 video married practical effects, industrial robotics, ’70s-style cinematography, and, for the time, cutting-edge digital effects. According to Björk’s website (now archived), the robots were designed by Cunningham, inspired from discussions he had with Björk, and built by Paul Catling with set designs by Julian Caldow and set assembly by Chris Oddy.
In “All Is Full of Love,” the robots are alienating and sensual all at once. Playing against the sterility of the laboratory environment of the video, the robots’ emotional and sexual encounter suggests highly potent and interpretable metaphors about self-acceptance, queer love, or the role technology plays in modern love. In his outline treatment for the video, Cunningham called it “Kama Sutra meets industrial robotics.”
The robots themselves have antecedents in animation and comics. The 1995 anime film Ghost in the Shell also features a humanoid robot assembly in a milky white environment. The robots in the 1990 manga and 1995 anime Battle Angel Alita are not totally dissimilar in look, and the exterminators from the 1998 manga BLAME! share a strong resemblance with Björk’s robots.
What made the “All Is Full of Love” robots so revolutionary was Björk’s face, superimposed onto otherwise totally mechanical frames. By digitally compositing a human face onto a white-paneled body with interior mechanics exposed, Cunningham created a visual shorthand that suggested a creature that was human enough. Compared with the mask and robot suit Robin Williams wears in Bicentennial Man, also from 1999, the Björk robots feel much more emotionally alive. Williams’ android feels like a robot shell shrouding a human frame, whereas Cunningham’s designs suggest a human soul emerging from hard plastic and metal.
Timberlake is not the first to follow in Björk’s hallowed shoes, however.
Just four months after “All Is Full of Love” premiered, there came the music video for Garbage’s “The World Is Not Enough,” which also features a robot assembly line and digital compositing of human faces onto robot bodies. The design sense is different, reaching for a retrofuturistic James Bond pastiche rather than toward the future, but it’s still effective. Given the short time frame, it’s possible that Björk didn’t inspire Garbage—but if she didn’t, then it suggests that Björk was among the first to capture what would become the zeitgeist.
With more time, the pattern of influence would become clearer. The Mecha-Nanny from Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence also has the look of a composited human face on a spindly, unfinished mechanical robot body. (Coincidentally or not, Cunningham did special effects work involving robots on the unfinished Stanley Kubrick version of the project.) The robots in the 2004 film I, Robot are similar enough that some fans called it “a blatant rip-off,” although the producers never commented on the similarity. Neill Blomkamp’s 2015 film Chappie has also been noted as ending with a riff on “All is Full of Love.” In another 2015 film, Ex Machina, Ava the robot also possesses the cutout style of human face on thin mechanical body, and Westworld’s title sequence is an acknowledged homage.
The low point of the trend is almost certainly Svedka Vodka’s sexy robot mascot, which first ran in print and TV ads in 2005. The hairless porcelain-white paneled robot with a human face seems like classic “All Is Full of Love”—only this robot gyrates to a remix of Midnight Star’s “Freak-A-Zoid.”
Cunningham and Björk’s robots also prefigure a decade of white-plastic obsessed product design. Though they predated the iPod by more than two years, they look like Jonathan Ive could have consulted on them. The sterile minimalism of “All Is Full of Love” and the films it took inspiration from, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, would become the default aesthetic of things as varied as the Nintendo Wii and pill-package design. This aesthetic has become our default way of imagining technology.
It might be that we are obsessed with sterility in machines because we feel threatened by how tied we’ve become to them. Our phones and computers are in many ways a part of us now. Perhaps this is why Cunningham’s designs are still so beguiling while many of the imitations feel hollow: Björk’s video suggests that underneath the hard plastic, our technology is actually a part of us.
I was curious about how the aesthetic resonated in the world of actual robotics design and research, so I asked Sara Kiesler, the Hillman professor emerita of computer science and human computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University about the “All Is Full of Love” video. She told me in an email:
“I do think there is artistry in this video. … At the same time, the video reinforces stereotypes through the use of Playboy-style provocative female robots, and the repetitive, preprogrammed robots that are assembling the robot’s parts. Maybe someday a video will show at least one of the anthropomorphic figures as nonwhite, old, disabled, or plus-size, and smarter robots.”
It was an unexpected response but one that struck me as smart. There’s a reason why Cunningham’s designs translate so easily into Svedka’s sexy robot campaign, and the default whiteness of many of these designs is probably not a coincidence. The lyrics to “All Is Full of Love” are about coming to accept love from places or people you might not expect. Perhaps directors and concept designers should consider that not all robots have to look alike in order to receive love and affection from audiences.