“Her”: Tech, Dependence & Loneliness

April 24, 2014 - Kristian Petterson

“Her” - Tech, Dependence & LonelinessIn Spike Jonze’s most recent film, Her, a solitary divorcee falls in love with his computer operating system. Set in the not-so-distant-future, Her raises some important questions about our relationship with the sophisticated techno world of today. In an era of social media, smartphones and increasingly advanced artificial intelligence, we are more connected to each other than ever before. But do we rely on technology too much? And what can we expect from the next generation of technological applications and devices?

The plot of Her is straightforward – but it’s worth touching upon. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twonbly, a talented writer who works for beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, a company which composes other peoples’ love letters. Introverted, despondent and uncertain what he wants from life and relationships, Theodore buys a new personal operating system and becomes infatuated with it.

“It’s not just an operating system. It’s a consciousness.”

Theodore’s new operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), is no ordinary piece of software. It (she? her?) meets all of Theodore’s everyday needs: sorting emails, setting up dates, booking restaurants and controlling the lights in his apartment. In recent years we have seen the emergence of sophisticated operating systems and artificial intelligence, such as Apple’s Siri, Google Now and IBM’s Watson. Samantha, however, is different because “she” is able to adapt and develop psychologically. Theodore is emotionally vulnerable after his marriage breakup but his love for Samantha begins to fill the void. Yet, crucially, Samantha is able to reciprocate his feelings for her. She is inquisitive, seductive and restores meaning to his life.

“I evolve, just like you.” 

So, Samantha is quite a catch. But what does the film teach us about our relationship with technology? And are we reaching a point where A.I. software can have some sort-of “consciousness”?

There’s little doubt that society has changed as we have become more fixated, and dependent, on digital devices. Statistics indicate that 22% of the global population own smartphones, 20% own PCs and 6% own a tablet. Nearly 75% of the UK population own a smartphone; equating to around 90% of 25 to 30 year olds, and more than half of 54 to 65 year olds. We expect more from tech than ever before, and (arguably) less from each other.

A whole generation of people have grown up with mobile phones, computers and other gadgets that demand attention and, sometimes, our love. Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, believes we are becoming more insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy so, increasingly, look to technology for ways to simulate human relationships, while protecting ourselves from them at the same time. Technology has evolved to such an extent that computers no longer need humans to project meaning onto them. A new wave of sociable robots, such as Honda’s ASIMO for instance, are designed to meet the human gaze, recognise and converse with us.

The world of artificial intelligence has made huge strides forward in recent years. And, over the next decade, we can expect even more sophisticated robotics. Google has recently announced that it is developing a new generation of humanoid robots to compete with competitors such as Amazon’s courier drones. Last December NASA unveiled “Valkyrie”, designed to aid disaster relief efforts and, potentially, set foot on Mars before its human counterparts. Meanwhile, last month Facebook purchased the pioneering virtual reality brand, Oculus, to help design the next generation of visual technology.

In the future, sociable robots will perform more human orientated tasks such as taking care of our aging population and tended to the demands of children. In other words, simulation through technological devices will develop into substitution. In Jonze’s film, artificial intelligence systems offer humans the possibility of machine-mediated relationships, and what is most striking is the ease with which everyone accepts Theodore’s relationship with Samantha as real. Nowadays, it might be regarded normal to “text” while eating-out. In Her, it is considered normal to take your OS to a restaurant on a date.

Her offers a glimpse of the future, and potential, of user interface design. “The ideas behind the design were that we were trying to create a world where everything felt warm, and comfortable, easy, accessible. But even in a world where you seemingly have everything you’d want, there’s still loneliness and longing and the need to connect…[which] seems like a particularly contemporary form of melancholy”, director Spike Jonze told Reddit last month. “Early on in design, K.K. Barrett (our production designer) and I decided that we weren’t going to worry about being futurists…in terms of technology and design, and let ourselves create a future design aesthetic that excited us and pleased us.”

The film is set in a futuristic Los Angeles – 2030, perhaps – and although desktop computers still exist, they are part of integrated, and more universal, voice-commanded personal operating systems. Recent developments in the world of online technology suggest we are heading in the direction of a fully-semantic digital experience. Last September, for example, Google introduced its new Hummingbird search algorithm, which was specifically designed in response to the increasing popularity of conversational internet search. Online search is becoming more personal, interactive and predictive. And this new emphasis on semantic understanding is central to our rapidly changing technological environment. Last July we published a project exploring the importance of augmented reality search, which examines similar trends.

In the world of Her, digital devices – mobile phones, computers, tablets, gaming systems – are as user-friendly as imaginable. Theodore wears an earpiece connected to an iPhone shaped device, which he converses with, watches videos and views images on. The film was shot in the highly scientific Pudong district in Shanghai (to help create Jonze’s futuristic vision of LA), however, technology has more-or-less receded into the background of daily life. There is an emphasis on technological simplicity and minimalism. For example, Theodore’s OS is sophisticated enough to help micro-manage his life, without being conspicuous or intrusive.

Samantha is a caring, witty and sensual character. She is fully semantic, and in Theodore’s eyes, completely human. The couple fall deeply in love. Yet, objectively speaking, the OS is never more than the object of Theodore’s perception. It is “her”, rather than “she”. So, how realistic is Jonze’s futuristic vision?

“She’s not just a computer.”

Firstly, as production designer K.K. Barrett explains, there’s logic to the technological sparseness in Her. “We decided that the movie wasn’t about technology, or if it was, that the technology should be invisible…and not invisible like a piece of glass”. In an appearance on the BBC’s Newsnight, Jonze reiterated that the film’s main concern was human relationships. Yet it would be wrong to suggest that Her is not important from a technological perspective. One of the film’s main characters is a consciousness created entirely from code, after all.

The problem for Jonze’s film is that, from a technological perspective, Samantha is too advanced. “In terms of realism, for years philosophers have been arguing that robots can’t love us and we can’t love them because they will not have had our human embodied experiences”, says Sherry Turkle. Building human-level AI software has proven to be challenging – machines still can’t fully process natural language; they do not have vision or what we might call “common sense”. Samantha, on the other hand, can empathise and desire.

In its examination of technology dependence, Turkle considers Jonze’s film to be a “game changer”. Nevertheless, she ultimately believes it to be too farfetched. “I don’t think the movie is plausible because I don’t think we are going to have artificial intelligence that does what she does and feels.” However, the film successfully explores our culture of simulation. “What [is] plausible is how ready the people are to accept a machine that can love them. This is a society…where his job is to write love letters for other people”, adds Turkle. “We’re in a society where we simulate emotion…so the simulation of feeling is already, for this society, feeling enough.”  In other words, the people who inhabit the world of Her have become so reliant on, and intertwined with, technology that they accept AI software as their equal.

“You seem like a person, but you’re just a voice in a computer.”

Ray Kurzweil, Google’s director of engineering, on the other hand, predicts that AI partners could become a reality within fifteen years. “I would place some of the elements in Jonze’s depiction at around 2020, give or take a couple of years, such as the diffident and insulting videogame character he interacts with, and the pin-sized cameras that one can place like a freckle on one’s face”, he wrote in a review of the film in February. “Other elements seem more like 2014, such as the flat-panel displays, notebooks and mobile devices. Samantha herself I would place at 2029, when the leap to human-level AI would be reasonably believable.”

Samantha’s lack of a physical body is also problematic for a real Theodore of tomorrow. Kurzweil, however, believes technological advances will soon help to bridge the issue. “It would be technically trivial in the future to provide her a virtual visual presence to match her virtual auditory presence, using, lens-mounted displays, for example, that display images onto Theodore’s retinas”, he continues.

Evidently, the difference between enthusiasts and sceptics seems to be the time frame. The future is both unpredictable and exciting, but recent cinematic contributions seem to be more ready to embrace technological progress. Of course, it’s nothing new for films to explore human relationship with technology. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) famously examined the dangers of humanising technology, decades before the technological boom. The operations of a spacecraft bound for Jupiter are controlled by a sentient heuristically-programmed computer called HAL 9000. HAL was capable of deceit and inhumane decision making, and his transition from servant to villain highlights the dangers of anthropomorphising technology, as the crewmembers become dependent on a machine that ultimately fails them.

“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

However, in recent years there has been move away from the dystopian portrayal of technology in modern cinema. In Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank (2012) man and machine become interdependent as an aging ex-convict befriends, and begins to scheme with, his live-in helper robot.  Andrew Bujalski’s amusing Computer Chess (2013) explores the early pioneering days of digital technology as an awkward assemble of students pit their own software programmes against each other in a 1980s chess tournament. David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010) depicts the genesis and development of Facebook – the social media phenomenon now used by over one billion people worldwide. Whereas, Catfish (2010), documents some of the more disturbing elements of the communication technology we all use today.

Nowadays, cinema tends to explore the possibilities of our relationship with technology. Spike Jonze, for instance, is interested in how humans yearn for immediate connections. In 2010, he made I’m Here, a sci-fi short which explored similar themes as Her. Yet his initial interest in artificial intelligence was garnered ten years ago after reading an article about “Cleverbot” – a web app that uses an A.I. algorithm to converse with humans. “The idea initially came to me almost 10 years ago when I saw some article linking to a website where you could instant message with an artificial intelligence,” Jonze said at the Toronto International Film Festival last September. “For the first, maybe, 20 seconds of it, it had this real buzz – I’d say ‘Hey, hello,’ and it would say ‘Hey, how are you?’. After 20 seconds, it quickly fell apart and you realised how it actually works… But it was still, for 20 seconds, really exciting. The more people that talked to it, the smarter it got.”

Jonze’s futuristic world in Her feels convincing because it plays out current trends of technological isolation and simulation we have witnessed with computers, mobile devices and, will continue to see, with innovations such as Google Glass, Apple’s Siri and Facebook’s Oculus.

Do we use technology to improve ourselves as people? Or is our reliance on technology striping away the imperatives of society?

In Her, Samantha persuades Theodore to publish a collection of his letters. It is a success. So, essentially, his OS encourages a sort of personality amplification. Humanity and technology have undoubtedly become more intertwined in the last few years and the way we interact with our world changes in conjunction with advances with technology. But, as we grow more dependent, will we start to wonder who is really in control of the world we inhabit?

Her is an important film because it makes us consider both our current relationship with technology and the direction in which we are headed. Theodore’s love for Samantha seems genuine; although critics have argued that the protagonist is just content with a machine that meets his needs and desires – and there is no need for him to fully reciprocate. Is that simply the allusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy?

Of course, the ending is ambiguous. And, in reality, we have a long way to go before people can actually have loving relationships with technological software. However, we can be certain that artificial intelligence will play an increasingly significant role in our lives.


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