Before signing on for the just-concluded third season of “The Girlfriend Experience,” writer-director Anja Marquardt was working on multiple projects set in what she calls “future-facing worlds.” Immersed in technology-driven stories to the point where she was “living and breathing” data, cybernetics, and artificial intelligence, the filmmaker behind “She’s Lost Control” is still quick to call herself a neophyte.
“To be perfectly honest, I don’t really have a background in tech at all, but I’ve always been really curious,” Marquardt said in an interview with IndieWire. “I’m a really research-driven filmmaker at heart. I really enjoy the process of unveiling for myself a world that has nothing to do with my own, [which] involves lots of research and seeking inspiration in other works of art and reading lots of stuff, like scientific papers, but also interviewing advisors.”
Anyone who’s seen even a few episodes of “The Girlfriend Experience” Season 3 knows her diligent fascination paid off in an unsettling new story. This year’s arc, executive produced by Steven Soderbergh, follows Iris (Julia Goldani Telles), a neuroscience major who moves to London to work with a “human desire company” called NGM. There, Iris sorts through piles of data trying to map the intricacies within what turns people on — and this being “The Girlfriend Experience,” she also takes that pursuit home with her. Iris doubles as an exclusive escort, working for a mysterious company simply called The V, where she goes by Cassie. All her clients — from eclectic billionaires to lonely sports stars — are sent to her over the phone, and she only ever “meets” her employer via a virtual reality rig.
“It hasn’t entered the mainstream yet, but it made sense for me to imagine the next iteration of an elusive global company — in this case, a high-end escort company — to be based in the virtual realm,” Marquardt said. “You don’t know where the interviewer is, it caters to the global elite clients, and they’re using blockchain technology to facilitate the transactions.”
Still, V.R. is just the tip of the iceberg. Throughout Season 3, Iris encounters (or helps create) technology that could easily skew the series into science fiction, yet remains grounded in its plausibility.
“A lot of the technologies, a lot of the machine-learning elements that have made their way into the show, they’re being exploited and explored right now by a lot of different industries as we speak,” Marquardt said. “There’s nothing futuristic about it. It’s here right now.”
To better understand what Iris would be working with, Marquardt sought out advisors who could provide specific examples of current technology advancements, but many were restricted by NDAs. “A lot of people couldn’t talk to us,” she said, but eventually they found Simon Stringer, the director of Oxford’s Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence.
“Because [Simon] is based in an academic setting, he was actually able to advise and look at a scene with me and go, ‘OK, this bit of dialogue wouldn’t really make sense here because that’s the shorthand they would be using,'” Marquardt said. “So that kind of stuff was really fun to be precise about and try to also honor the work that people do in the field.”
Season 3 includes scenes where Iris and her test subjects wear body sensors over their chest and head to gauge attraction. She and her colleagues at NGM listen to audio files so they can build an A.I. able to read and replicate human emotions.
“Sweaty hands or just a flush to the head; rapid eye movement, as opposed to just intense focus. We give away so many signifiers as humans that are measurable by machines in a way that is far more precise than the normal human who is moderately good at reading other people,” Marquardt said. “We can infer something from looking at a person’s eyes, even if they’re wearing a mask and we’re missing half of the expression. We’re still sort of reading a smile. We can hear a smile in a voice, but I think if you teach A.I. to read human emotions, it’ll be infinitely more precise in dissecting the specifics of that emotion. And that is scary to me.”
One night, “Cassie” and her clients attend a digital orgy; outfitted in special strips of fabric that measure their arousal via saliva, sweat, and other bodily acts, attendees can kiss and touch each other, but their outfits allow them to simulate sex without physical contact. Iris and another guest use a virtual dildo, letting their wearable tech create the appropriate stimulation without any actual penetration.
Courtesy of Starz
“The only thing that’s sort of future-facing about the show, really, is how far we could hypothetically go with this one very specific A.I. mirror that they’re working on,” Marquardt said. “It’s a totally bonkers idea, but at the same time, if you do any research into state-of-the-art sex toys, they’re remote controllable across the globe: One person is here, the other person is there. It’s all happening using WiFi. There’s some sort of relay between devices that can be construed as a connection between the people that are operating these devices.”
As noted by the premiere episode’s title, mirroring plays a key aspect in “The Girlfriend Experience” Season 3. Early on, Iris keys in on the idea that scientists can teach a piece of A.I. to train itself by pitting it against another A.I.; whenever one spots a flaw, it corrects itself, smoothing out errors as it perpetually learns more accurate responses.
[Editor’s Note: The following portion of the interview contains spoilers for “The Girlfriend Experience” Season 3, Episode 10, including the ending.]
In the series, this concept peaks in the finale, titled “Integration.” Iris learns that the studies she’s been conducting with NGM haven’t been primarily focused on the subjects; they’ve been focused on her. Using data gleaned from sessions, the company has built an artificial neural network named M.C. that’s eerily similar to Iris herself. The prototype’s dozens of real-world applications include a digital copy of Iris serving as an A.I. escort — a kind of digital duplicate that’s trained to read people and can adapt to become whatever the client desires using the same techniques Iris implemented for research. M.C. can be the “perfect” surrogate girlfriend, giving each paying “boyfriend” what they want even if they don’t know they want it.
But much like any piece of software we use today, M.C. will be collecting data from everyone who logs in for sessions, aggregating information on how people communicate, what excites them, and so many more intimate interactions (and confessions). With that vast knowledge of human desire in mind, Iris decides against erasing everything and destroying the company that betrayed her, as well as their A.I. duplicate; instead, she barters for immortality: A chip is added to Iris’ brain, allowing for an “integration” between M.C. and Iris, so each one can learn from the other, perhaps forever. Iris makes sure she can retain access to all the raw data throughout her life, before handing over a copy of her digital self to her next of kin after she dies.
“I went pretty full tilt with that concept,” Marquardt said. “But just to give you an idea of how AI trains itself, there is this notion of Generative Adversarial Networks, or GANs that I learned [about] from one of our advisors. In any kind of deepfake you’re seeing — I’m sure some of the readers or audience will have seen the Bill Hader deepfake of Tom Cruise — the way you would allow an A.I. to do that is that you teach it with training data. Let’s say you have a bunch of still images or just a short video of training data that the AI learns; then there is a counterpointing A.I. that says, ‘OK, actually what you just simulated isn’t good enough. It’s still not as good as the original so try harder.’ So it’s this ongoing feedback loop of mirroring.”
Marquardt said that process goes “on and on” for as long as it needs to, and that’s how new data can be created without any human input. Where it goes from there is anyone’s guess — and exactly what Iris couldn’t say no to learning first-hand, even if it means losing her autonomy and becoming one with the A.I. she helped built, if not also the company that clearly can’t be trusted. Such a twisted ending certainly befits some of our better science-fiction stories, but “The Girlfriend Experience” remains tied to the here and now. So many of us are willing to sacrifice our privacy for convenience, and the pandemic exemplified why some social interactions may need to be replicated from the safety of home. Marquardt’s story simply asks how far we’re willing to go.
“I would hope that someone who is in A.I. can watch the show and be like, ‘Oh cool. They did their work,” Marquardt said, while still noting caution about her discoveries. “It’s all going down a very insidious path. We’ll see where it takes us. I mean, I would personally hope that a lot of us will want to come out of this pandemic just going in for the real hug.”
“The Girlfriend Experience” Season 3 is available now via Starz.