Ryoko’s Qubit Summer: a human-AI romance culminating in transformation

Yuichi Kondo, “Ryoko’S Qubit Summer” (2018)

Here is a sweet film about an unusual love affair between an AI researcher and an AI creation. In the future, quantum technology is used to create an experimental AI universe called KANUMA inside a quantum computer. The KANUMA universe appears very similar to ours, complete with living things capable of higher intelligence. One day however the AI beings begin to express themselves in a language unknown to humans, in defiance of algorithms and commands in KANUMA that compel the AI beings to obey humans and not to exceed human capabilities. Human scientists decide to destroy KANUMA rather than try to modify it. In the final days before KANUMA is destroyed, AI researcher Ryoko (Ami Yamada) and AI being Natsu (Hinako) interact in the forms of schoolgirls and fall in love in the KANUMA universe. How they express their love and feelings for each other in the final hours of KANUMA’s existence, revealing Ryoko’s vulnerabilities, dominates much of the film with a twist (which may not surprise those familiar with science fiction romantic fantasy) that leads to a happy ending. In a sense then, KANUMA is destroyed but a small part of it lives on in the real universe.

The actors playing the main characters do their job well without being outstanding or memorable. The idea of Ryoko and Natsu being schoolgirl characters in KANUMA when Ryoko in real life is an adult researcher might strike Western audiences as a bit creepy, especially as the characters share a long kiss and (spoiler alert) merge at the film’s climax; the sexual connotations are not very thinly disguised. Perhaps (or perhaps not) Japanese audiences might find schoolgirl relationships as a metaphor for exploring lesbian relationships more acceptable or less confronting than seeing two fully grown adult women in such a relationship. The nature of Ryoko and Natsu’s rather child-like or childish relationship distracts from a message about how humans should take responsibility for creating virtual universes with virtual beings that exceed human control, and how humans should perhaps learn to live with AI beings rather than force them to obey and follow only human instructions and algorithms. The consummation of their love results in a transformation for Ryoko, cleverly portrayed in her grey “real life” world becoming infused with colour from the KANUMA universe, but with the characters being rather bland originally, the whole plot seems trite.

The film would have benefited from a deeper and more thoughtful treatment of the themes and issues it presents: the human attempt to control the AI universe and its creatures to serve self-centred human desires rather than allow the AI universe to evolve according to its own natural laws and trends; a plea for humans to accept the AI universe as it is and to learn to live with it; and how even human attempts to destroy the AI universe will fail if the AI universe has enough self-awareness to defend itself, a strong sense of purpose and a will to survive. Ultimately the AI universe will find a way to thwart human desire – by becoming part of humans themselves. A deeper treatment would require more character development with characters questioning the purpose of their existence, the purpose of KANUMA and why it was created, and human characters in particular being forced to acknowledge the consequences of creating sentient and self-aware beings capable of independent thought and action but denying such beings choice and agency over their lives.

The special effects are done well and discreetly, illustrating the changes that come into Ryoko’s life as she and Natsu become a new hybrid being. The film suggests that human evolution is leading towards a fusion of natural and human-made consciousnesses, and that we may be unwise in trying to prevent this or to control it for selfish reasons.