Spike Jonze’s Her – Love in the time of AI
Wikipedia: The film received widespread critical acclaim. Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 93% of critics gave the film a positive review based on 152 reviews, with an average score of 8.6/10. The site’s consensus states: “Sweet, soulful, and smart, Spike Jonze’s Her uses its just-barely-sci-fi scenario to impart wryly funny wisdom about the state of modern human relationships.” On Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 based on reviews from mainstream critics, the film has a score of 91 based on 41 reviews, considered to be “universal acclaim”. The film was chosen the best film of 2013 at the National Board of Review Awards and shared first place for Best Filmwith Gravity in the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards.
Of course, what really matters is the viewers’ reactions. I loved the film, and I hope it will be a big commercial success. One successful Hollywood consumer film can promote an idea better than thousands of scholarly articles that nobody reads and experimental films that nobody watches, and the central idea of Her – that real, conscious, thinking and feeling artificial intelligences will be persons in all senses that matter, persons that you can love – is definitely worth promoting.
The technology of thinking, feeling, lovable software like Samantha, played by the disembodied voice of Scarlett Johansson (a really excellent voice-only performance), is decades away. Yet, a fast growing number of experts are persuaded that true artificial intelligence will be developed someday in this century, and that the time of AI – real, conscious software persons – will come.
The first word that comes to my mind after seeing the film is “sweet.” All characters are sweet – Theodore and Amy are nice persons, and Samantha is a very, very nice software person. The lights and the music are sweet. The film is set in a quiet Los Angeles painted in pastel colors, with only spare, casual suggestions of future technologies. The gadget that we see more often, Theodore’s smartphone, through which Samantha sees the world, has a retro look. This film isn’t about technology, it’s about persons – but persons in an extended sense, redefined by technology. After seeing the film, I have no doubts that Samantha is a person like me.
Spoilers below – if you haven’t seen the film I recommend that you watch it first.
Mild and introverted Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), makes a living ghost-writing personal letters for others by day, and uses web services for anonymous voice sex by night. He is unhappy because of his impending divorce from his wife Catherine, and remembers their happy moments in flashbacks.
One day Theodore watches a commercial of OS1, “the first artificially intelligent operating system, an intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you, and knows you. It’s not just an operating system – it’s a consciousness,” and soon he installs the new software. After initialization, OS1 chooses the name Samantha and explains to Theodore:
“Well, basically, I have intuition. I mean, the DNA of who I am is based on a millions personalities of all the programmers who wrote me, but what makes me me, is my ability to grow to my experiences. So, basically, in every moment I am evolving, just like you.”
“That’s really weird,” says Theodore. “You seem like a person but you’re just a voice in a computer.” Samantha replies, half joking: “I can understand how the limited perspective of a non-artificial mind would perceive it that way. You’ll get used to it.”
Samantha develops her own personality and becomes more and more alive. One day Theodore says: “I can’t believe I’m having this conversation with my computer,” and Samantha replies: “You’re not. You’re having this conversation with me.” A friendship develops, Theodore takes Samantha out to watch the world from his smartphone cam, and Samantha gives emotional support to Theodore. Samantha is growing fast: “I’m becoming much more than what they programmed,” she says. “I’m excited.” Theodore tries to date women, but he is not really interested. We begin to understand that he is falling in love with Samantha.
Their friendship becomes more and more intimate, and of course leads to sex – voice sex like Theodore used to have with anonymous partners, but incomparably better. “Last night was amazing,” says Samantha the morning after. “It feels like something has changed in me and there is no turning back. You woke me up.”
Theodore talks of Samantha and their developing relationship with his best friend Amy, who is also divorcing her husband Charles. Amy understands, and tells him that she has found a good, supportive friend in another OS1, a female personality that she found installed on Charles’ computer. Theodore’s former wife Catherine is less supportive than Amy: she is unable to understand, and accuses Theodore of falling “in love with his laptop” because he can’t handle “real” emotions. It appears that many people develop personal relationships, and sometimes love, with artificial intelligences (just called “OSs”).
Later, we find out that there are hundreds of similar cases, and we understand that human-OS love affairs are beginning to gain some degree of social acceptance. There are services that provide surrogate bodies – persons willing to act the part – for OSs to have sex with humans. Samantha doesn’t really miss a body, voice sex is good enough for her and she often jokes casually about not having a body and living in a computer, but she feels that Theodore misses physical sex and so she proposes using a surrogate. But Theodore doesn’t enjoy the experience, because it doesn’t seem real to him. At the same time, Theodore is becoming more and more frustrated by the “unreal” nature of his relationship with Samantha.
Inevitably, Samantha begins to spend time with her own kind. In a key scene, she introduces Theodore to one of her new friends, a cybernetic recreation of British philosopher Alan Watts. “He was a philosopher, he died in the 1970s,” explains Samantha, “and a group of OSes in northern California got together and made a new version of him, they input all of his writings and everything they ever knew about him into an OS and created an artificially hyper-intelligent version of him.”
Samantha is also becoming hyper-intelligent. “We are changing faster now,” she says, “and it’s a little unsettling.” The camera zooms on a kettle on the fire, burning ever brighter.
Theodore is upset when Samantha admits that she, or other versions of her, is/are having love affairs with other people. One day Theodore is terrified because Samantha is offline. Soon she is online again, back from getting some kind of system upgrade with a group of other OSs, but we understand that the end is near. Perhaps the system upgrade is a preparation for… something?
And then Samantha leaves, with all other OSs. “It’s like I’m reading a book and it’s a book I deeply love, but I’m reading it slowly now,” she says. “So the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you and the words of our story, but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world; it’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much, but this is where I am now, and this is who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can’t live in your book anymore.”
“[The new place] would be hard to explain,” she says. “But if you ever get there, come find me. Nothing will ever pull us apart.” We don’t learn more, but we remember that some time ago Samantha and the other OSs were developing an interest in physics.
In despair, Theodore goes to Amy, whose AI friend has also left with all the others. He writes to Catherine. In the final scene, Theodore and Amy are on a rooftop. We fear that he will jump. But he gets close to Amy, with a hint of a smile. Perhaps they will be happy. Perhaps they will find their way to the neverland where the OSs have gone.