Blade Runner 2049: Virtual Companions and the Possibility of Joi

A prophetic look at relations between humans and artificial intelligence?

The original Blade Runner left us with more questions than answers. Is Deckard a replicant? Is a replicant human? Do replicants make choices or have real emotions?

Now, over three decades on, director Denis Villeneuve has returned to the world of Ridley Scott’s visionary neo-noir classic with Blade Runner 2049—answering a few old questions, and asking new ones. For those who haven’t seen the movies, the following contains spoilers.

The new film takes place in a Los Angeles that’s changed little since the original film set 30 years earlier. Permanent clouds still cover the sprawling, drab city in a dismal drizzle. But holograms have replaced billboards, filling the murky streets with bright lights and whispered promises. One such hologram is a naked woman as tall as a building, shining through the rain pink and luminous, advertising a virtual partner called “Joi.”

The perfect partner

Brought to life by Cuban actress Ana de Armas, Joi is a holographic artificial intelligence designed to offer the ultimate girlfriend experience, matching her moods and even outfits to her partner’s predilections. In promotional material, De Armas describes the character as “sensitive, funny, sexy, someone easy to talk to:” in other words, the perfect partner.

The basic idea of a virtual, customizable companion has precedent in the present. The most advanced version available today, a smartphone app called Harmony AI, was created by Realbotix to provide artificial intelligence for its line of robotic sex dolls.

Designed for Android, and with IOS and PC versions in development, it allows users to build a virtual partner that’s both portable and tailor-made, with a range of options for both physical features and character traits.

We see similar design elements in Joi. When a bloodied K (played by Ryan Gosling) returns home from work, he gifts Joi with an “emanator,” a device that makes her as mobile as a smartphone app.

As K performs the upgrade, a holographic menu reveals that Joi is fully customizable—from her eye color and body type to her ethnicity and language. While the menu lists mostly physical characteristics, it’s not much of a stretch to presume that Joi’s personality can also be altered according to user preferences.

Ironically, Joi plays a central role in humanizing the initially stoic and by-the-book blade runner K, an artificial being himself. A replicant, Gosling’s character is nonetheless more human than the artificial intelligence, at least on the outside; yet where he is dispassionate and obedient, the software-generated Joi is vibrant and expressive, and even sensual.

She seems to feel and savor the rain on her holographic skin, as well as a sexual encounter in which she superimposes herself over the body of a sex worker, a scene that manages to be both strange and touching. She even gives K a name, to make him feel human and unique: “Joe.”

In the bleak and violent world of Blade Runner 2049, Joi serves an important function in the socially isolated replicant’s life, providing company that he would otherwise find difficult, if not impossible, to find. They care for each other and trade cute private jokes. “Would you like coffee?” K asks the hologram, holding a mug. As Ana de Armas puts it, Joi “really shows love.”

But does she?

What’s in a name?

Joi does what many people hope artificial intelligences and robots will do in the real world: provide companionship for people who struggle to form human connections. Watching her, it’s easy to forget that she’s actually a program in a computer: a series of ones and zeroes.

But there are subtle reminders. To cheer up K, she picks up a book, asking him if he wants to read. “You hate that book,” he reminds her. When she says “I love you,” he tells her: “You don’t have to say that.”

It isn’t obvious that he’s right. Maybe she does have to say it. And that’s a key difference between a human and artificial partner, at least those virtual companions that are programmed to please their users.

In a fraught and climactic scene, K encounters the giant holographic advertisement for his virtual girlfriend, and the giant image bends down to speak to him. “You look like a good Joe,” it says. She returns to the billboard, the text beneath her flashing: “Everything you want to hear”.

The name “Joe” lingers in the space between them. It turns out that Joi’s idea to name him that may not have been as original as it seemed.

It’s a scene that provokes timely questions about virtual companions, and the nature of our emotional connections to artificial constructs.

Image sources: Warner Bros. Pictures, Harmony AI