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Portal, GLaDOS, and the Myth of the Objective Robot

A look at how GLaDOS lives inside just about every woman.

Adults are most child-like when imagining the future. We fill it with teleporters, flying cars, and holodecks. Often, reality catches up with that fiction. Even Disney’s Spaceship Earth had to shut down for renovations; its final image of a future where humans could talk to other people across the globe via a TV screen started to seem a little quaint. But even as we update our many Spaceship Earths in popular culture, there’s one element that remains evergreen: robots. From Rosie, to Data, to that Fassbender robot in the new Alien franchise, robots remain our eternal futuristic companions.

I suspect that this is because robots are thought of as the idealization of a rational self without racism, xenophobia, or other social baggage. Even when we imagine terrifying robots, the horror usually stems from them taking objectivity too far. These are robots who might, with cold calculation, put a mission before human decency. Else, they are creations that strive to be perceived as human, like Ex Machina’s Ava. In both cases, the conflict comes by robots living on a different code than their human companions. We are eager to make robots the “other.”

For a counterpoint, you need only boot up a nearly decade-old video game and reintroduce yourself to Portal’s chief antagonist: the rogue AI, GLaDOS. Though she has been read as a classic robot-gone-wrong, for anyone who has felt the dull pressure of internalized misogyny, GLaDOS is a reflection of something that is dark, private, and entirely human.

GLaDOS’s arc follows a familiar sci-fi pattern. At the start of the game, her instructions are benign and helpful. As the game continues, it becomes clear that there is something wrong: GLaDOS starts putting Chell into unsafe testing rooms, her voice becomes glitchy, and she makes comments about offputting science experiments. (“Did you know you can donate one or all of your vital organs to the Aperture Science self esteem fund for girls? It’s true!”)

In the pivotal moment of Portal, GLaDOS attempts to kill Chell at the end of the final testing chamber, only for Chell to escape into the bowels of the facility. GLaDOS, in turn, berates Chell and begs her to come back. However, GLaDOS doesn’t get big and aggressive. She is cloying. (“It was a fun test and we’re all impressed by how much you won.“) She is pleading. (“This isn’t safe for you.“) She is blaming. (“This is your fault.“) Her voice echoes all around the depths of the facility as Chell tries to make a break for it.

Chell is notably silent through the entirety of Portal. GLaDOS, on the other hand, is almost always talking, providing a running commentary for Chell’s trials and tribulations. She is the voice in Chell’s head. All of Chell’s actions have an equal and opposite reaction, and GLaDOS is increasingly cruel in her reactions. She picks on Chell. She talks down to her. She doubts every action that Chell makes and tells her she’s bad and unworthy. GLaDOS is the articulation of every self-doubt, every bit of self-hatred, every internalized I’m-not-good-enough.

In other words, GLaDOS is every horrible thing that a woman has thought about herself.

During the climactic final boss fight between GLaDOS and Chell, the latter finally comes face to face (as it were) with the looming AI. Throughout the boss fight, GLaDOS continues taunting Chell. If you listen closely, one of the lines GLaDOS delivers in barely a whisper is, “This isn’t brave. It’s murder. What did I ever do to you?” Logically speaking, this accusation doesn’t make any sense, since Chell is fighting for her life. But GLaDOS’ delivery isn’t ironic or sarcastic. Rather, she very much believes that Chell is murdering her. Even as Chell literally destroys the thing that’s been telling her how awful she is for simply doing the things she needs to do to survive, she is told to doubt her actions by eliciting sympathy for that which tries to destroy her.

Despite all this, as the game’s credits roll, there is the horrible realization that the voice that has haunted Chell for the entirety of the game is, almost triumphantly, Still Alive.

Here is where it might be easy to dismiss all this as some warning for an imagined future. However, like any good science fiction, Portal and GLaDOS are parables for the present. A paper published earlier this year in Science explored how AI systems learn language and semantics. In this paper, the researchers explained that as AI systems acquired language through inputted text, these systems also acquired “imprints of our historical biases.” Co-author Joanna Bryson explained, “A lot of people are saying this is showing that AI is prejudiced. No. This is showing we’re prejudiced and that AI is learning it.” Like a parrot that repeats back the dirty words it hears, the systems we create echo what we say about ourselves and each other.

GLaDOS might be a robot, but unlike other examples in science fiction, she isn’t some “other.” She’s me. She’s the programming that I have taken to heart; she is the scripts I follow. I have a voice inside me that doubts and polices everything that I do, and it is specific to my experience in the world as a woman. If I were suddenly, magically, able to build a robot with complex AI this very moment, I wouldn’t be able to exorcise these portions of myself. I can’t imagine that I would create something with such a homicidal impulse as GLaDOS, but I have no doubts that the misogyny I have buried inside of me would find its way into the hardware.

As we surround ourselves with increasingly automated systems, we’d do well to examine how our decades of human biases are programmed into the devices that populate our homes, offices, and pockets. Without this examination, we’ll find that the worst of the voices in our heads—voices that, granted, were “programmed” into us by society at large—will find their way into what we create. We could end up compounding misogyny instead of correcting it.

But, don’t despair: this is ultimately hopeful. Just as Chell needed to face the AI that was hounding her in order to destroy it, we would do well to recognize that robots are not some “other.” We should stare at them until we see ourselves reflected back in their chrome surfaces.

(image: Valve)

Amy Langer is a writer and performance artist living in the Bay Area. When not writing about video games for her website Gentle Gamers (gentlegamers.com), you can find her onstage with the San Francisco Neo-Futurists (sfneofuturists.com)

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