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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