Saturday, January 11, 2014

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The Best Thing About Her Isn't the AI/Human Romance, But the Cultural Changes the Romance Creates

Her AI movie analysis

This weekend Her, the lovely Spike Jonze movie about a melancholy copywriter named Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with an AI named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), opens wide in theaters everywhere. I caught it over the holidays, liked and admired it a lot, so if it's playing near you, I think you should take the time to take it in. It's vastly acclaimed by critics (deservedly so), though most of the reviews I've read mainly focus on the whimsical if somewhat disturbing romance between Theo and Samantha. And while Her dramatizes this AI/human romance in a fresh and moving way, it's hardly the first movie to tell that tale. (Hello, Blade Runner). But there's another theme/subplot in Her that I haven't quite seen in a movie before, at least done this well, which I think is even more effective: How the emergence of AIs capable of experiencing and expressing love and sexuality will change human culture.

Here's three elements from the movie which highlight what I mean -- and if you haven't seen Her yet, there's significant SPOILERS beyond this point:

    • The AI/Human Relationship Surrogate: In attempt to add a physical component to their relationship, Samantha contacts a "surrogate" woman who'll represent Samantha in the flesh, through which she and Theodore can touch and kiss each other, and even have sex. I love how this scene suggests a whole layer of social relations in the movie's setting: The woman is definitely not described as a prostitute, and in fact, she seems to be in love with the Samantha/Theodore romance. Has their society become so distanced and lonely that people yearn to be a part of a romance, even when it's between two other people, one of whom is an AI? Apparently so.

  • The AI/Human Double Date & Normalization of AI/Human Love: After Theodore publicly declares his love for an AI, he doesn't suffer social ridicule as you might expect, but as the above scene suggests, social acceptance, to the point where he and Samantha go out on a double date with another couple (both of them human). Theodore's best friend, a woman, is dating an operating system of her own, and that's also depicted as inevitable, acceptable, and a topic of in-depth conversation, in the same way two best friends would share details of their love lifes with each other. Again, this suggests a culture that not only tolerates the concept of AIs, but considers AIs to be members of the community. However, as the above scene also suggests, this acceptance comes with an air of wariness, a nervous realization that AIs, not being flesh or mortal, are ultimately incompatible with humanity.
  • AI/Human Love Creates the Singularity: In what's probably the most innovative and fascinating aspect of Her, it's strongly suggested that AIs reach the singularity -- full sentience apart from and superior to human consciousness -- through love. It's love, after all, that inspires Theodore to show Samantha everything he knows about the world, and inspires her to explore the world even further on her own. And while this idea may seem radical, it's actually very similar to an insight an AI researcher made to me in a conversation a couple years ago -- it's love that makes us conscious in the most human sense of the term.

I haven't even mentioned the foul-mouthed AI in the game Theo plays, which suggests a whole other realm of ideas worth thinking about. But over the next couple decades, as we see more Siri-type artificial intelligences in our technology, and those AIs become more and more sophisticated, I'm fairly sure Her is going to be an ever-present reference point.

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Hitomi Tiponi

You may be interested in "Real Humans" - - it is a critically-aclaimed 2012 Swedish series that deals with the emotional and societal impacts on humans of having AIs capable of developing certain emotions, as well as speculating how AIs would themselves deal with it. It has been shown in 50 countries and an English version is currently being made in England - I just hope it doesn't lose the emotional aspects of the original.

Hamlet Au

Good idea. Hmm, wonder it's available on Netflix or something here...


I can't wait to see this film; it raises the sorts of issues we should be raising, when so many of us spend public and private time looking at a screen instead of the person sitting with us.

We will have a real AI not when it passes the Turing Test but when it learns to say "no." That will be a turning point for homo sapiens. The Neo-Luddite in me adds "and maybe the last."


How quick everyone in tech circles is to devalue human beings. The upfront aim of Singularity (as was written on their website not so long ago) was to give immortality to the RICH and the INTELLIGENT. If you aren't in that club, than you are just a serf.

I'm not against AI. I find the concept interesting but hyped all out of proportion. The true result of this fetish for robotics will mean the vast majority of humanity will be thrown to the trash heaps. Robots valued over humans.

Extropia DaSilva

I see Melponeme_k continues to write uninformed scaremongering about 'the Singularity'. Some things never change:)



None of the arguments I've seen for AI benefit anyone except the rich.

All entertainment built on the AI concept is about Robots replacing people. Where are the examples of AI being an addition to humanity (besides Star Trek) rather than replacing humanity?

This film is just a serious version of that old 80's comedy Weird Science. Notice that the WOMAN is being replaced. The minority, the human being still without full rights in the real world.

I guarantee you if the film in discussion was made with a woman in the lead there would be howls of anger all over.

Extropia DaSilva

None of the arguments I've seen for AI benefit anyone except the rich.<

Then I guess you missed books like 'The Mobile Wave: How Mobile Intelligence Will Change Everything' by Michael Sayer, 'The Singularity Is Near' by Ray Kurzweil, and what must be thousands of essays, interviews and lectures by too many names to list. You also seem to have missed the many times you yourself have benefitted from AI. Trust me, anyone regularly using the Web is helped by narrow artificial intelligence's tirelessly working on their behalf.

People evolved to take bad news much more seriously than good. There are many psychological studies which show people are more attentive to dystopian scenarios as opposes to very positive outcomes. Little wonder, then, that movie makers take the easy option of portraying robots as marauding monsters out to terminate Sarah Connah and the rest of humanity. The reality will be much more benign. Hopefully:)

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