Osmosis: an ambivalent, philosophical take on AI-facilitated romance

Osmosis: an ambivalent, philosophical take on AI-facilitated romance

Osmosis (2019, TV, now on Netflix), created by Audrey Fouché, is a French sci-fi drama series with echoes of Black Mirror, albeit less nihilistic, and a tinge of Sense8, as it depicts telepathic encounters. It revolves around the frequently explored sci-fi concept of AI-facilitated romance, interwoven with corresponding existential, moral, and political concerns, as well as realistic coexisting anxieties. The revealing biological term from the title is also the name of the futuristic dating app which collects, uses, and monitors the brain data of the testers for the purpose of uniting them with their ideal romantic match for life. There are also parallel narratives accompanying this romance-centric plot line, featuring non-romantic characters whose lives are driven by different purposes, with motivations such as family or socio-political agendas.

The specifics of the Osmosis process include swallowing a pill delivering nanorobots into the brains of the volunteers, as a way of picking up thoughts, characteristics, responses, and so on. At the end of the process, the algorithm not only reveals the face of their Osmotic partner, but allows the tech team to further analyse brain information in real time to examine the hormone levels, impulses, and reactions of the participant. When both partners are implanted, their brains can connect from afar, allowing them to share an otherworldly connection and moments of ineffable exaltation. There is a moment in which Paul, the protagonist and pioneer of Osmosis, visualises and tries to capture the phenomenon in words, yet the cynical unknowing man listening to him can’t grasp the reality or extent of the experience, dismissing it as poetic embellishment for falling in love.

The unique connection is depicted through intertwining physical bodies floating in a dark virtual space. However, there is an element of subjectivity which makes us reluctant to take Paul’s symbolic descriptions as well as the consistency of Osmosis for granted. Whilst Paul seems to be infatuated with and devoted to the Osmosis process, describing it as otherworldly, if we consider his partner’s dissatisfaction and actions in the show (which I will not spoil too much) we could infer that she may not feel it with the same intensity. It could be that certain issues regarding scientific predictability and the controlling aspects of Osmosis represent a strong incentive for her actions, overriding the augmented Osmosis euphoria, as we never hear her describe the same remarkable experience, which makes you wonder- to what extent does the Osmosis experience vary based on brain chemistry? Is it comparable to a normal intimate encounter between infatuated lovers? Is it as varied as people’s capacity for and perception of love? Another aspect that is aligned with the view of subjectivity and inconsistency is the moment Paul starts saying Osmosis didn’t seem as strong/ intense at particular times. Not to mention Lucas, whose abnormal Osmosis experience was dismissed as the inevitable error of and exception to the test. Is Osmosis as reliable as Paul hopes?

Osmosis is a complex show in its dystopian-utopian ambiguity, especially when it comes to the reliance on advanced invasive technology in the pursuit of human desires, the trustworthiness of and control exerted by tech companies, as well as the idea of controlling and monitoring feelings and predicting love-related outcomes. Some characters vouch for the project, whilst others exhibit outright pessimism or express some moral and existential doubts- including the supporters of a competing app based on a different, less fatalistic ideology. This will probably echo the responses of the viewers as well, and the common concerns anyone will have on this topic- the oscillations between rejecting and embracing the potential impact of such advanced technology, seeing it as a threatening aspect of the bleak dark future ahead or as an enlightening step forward.

Another significant dimension of the series- a contemporary element among more futuristic concerns, is the complicated familial bond between the creators of Osmosis, Esther (Agathe Bonitzer) and Paul (Hugo Becker). Paul believes in Osmosis with an obsessive dedication, yet everyone around him seems to have other conflicting interests. His sister, Esther, the tech mastermind behind the project, explores the alternative, medical uses derived from Osmosis, such as using the technology to revive their comatose mother, which leads to a sinister family secret being revealed through memory reconstruction. Meanwhile, another character reconsiders their own ulterior motive for signing up for the app, whilst an important piece of the puzzle experiences a change of heart, threatening Paul’s beliefs and life. AI sentience may also make a short-lived appearance.

The show is mostly slow-paced, exuding arthouse vibes, and the characters, as well as the actors’ performances, have a polarising effect in terms of likeability. Esther is the highly intelligent, calculated component of Osmosis, with a background in AI and computational neuroscience – who is, however, perhaps ironically, quite detached from the actual experience and aims of the project. She is absent-minded and somewhat discourteous with people in her vicinity, intense yet emotionally detached from everything aside from being invested in and consumed by family events, doing questionable deeds for pure reasons. Meanwhile, her interest in romantic love is non-existent and replaced by her love for her brother and mother, her sexual encounters in Virtual Reality, and her conversations with the Osmosis-powering computer, the disembodied voice of Martin. Esther is self-contained, tense, rarely smiling, unwavering in her goals – the sterile, clinical room she is usually seen in being a reflection of her clinical self. On the other hand, her brother, Paul, is quite the opposite, expansive, prone to worrying, emotionally transparent, lively, with his constantly reinforced devotion to the Osmosis project and his passionate discourse on the sublimity of love, even whilst the connection which started everything shows signs of disintegrating. If there is one character that will definitely have a negative impact, that will be Ana, due to her poor decision-making, unassured, flimsily duplicitous manner and random last-minute changes of heart: some nonsensical (for her character) and some belated; she was essential in the delivery of the plot, but her character could have made a lot more sense.

Osmosis starts from a common sci-fi premise and popular tropes including AI matchmaking, tech threats, surveillance, AI sentience, and data corruption, exploring themes of alienation, soulmates, family ties, alternative sexual orientation, addictions, proceeding to delve into the humanity of the characters, into character flaws, into stories not going as planned, into reality rather than pessimistic apocalyptic nightmares or make-believe romantic ideals.

Diana Marin

Diana Marin is a creative content writer, founder, curator, and editor of The Uncanny Archive, art lover, poet, and social media enthusiast. She is a Literature and Film Graduate, with a Master’s degree in Film, Photography, and Media. She is never afraid to explore and embrace the multi-faceted nature of her mind, artistic potential, and of the world through interdisciplinary interests. Some of the themes she has researched and been inspired by throughout the years are the uncanny, memories, identity, dreams, the Unconscious mind, and channelling mental health disorders into art. Personal Website: dianamarin.com

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