Since I rarely talk about anything other than analytics, I should give fair warning right away – this post isn’t about analytics – it’s about the movie Her.
If you haven’t seen the movie, here’s a second warning. Almost everything I’m about to write is a spoiler. So here’s my advice if you haven’t seen Her. Don’t read this post. Go see the movie. Then come back if you want to. It’s worth it (the movie – I can’t guarantee the post).
So if you’re here, you’ve seen the movie and you probably know why I might want to right about it. It may not have been the best movie I’ve seen in the last few years, but it was by far the most thought provoking.
Her combines a fascinatingly realized near-future that makes more sense and is far more compelling than the spate of dystopian fantasies that have dragged their weary carcasses into books and movies in the last few years. Her’s world is a recognizable possible future. Carefully considered, carefully evoked. With points both good and bad. It’s a place you might well want to live in but might be a little scared of too.
But Her’s director has bigger fish to fry than creating a plausible future world. He’s focused in on two somewhat separate concerns that happen to overlap in his story: one is the increasing emotional distance between humans (driven at least in part by our immersion in technology) and the other is the possible growth of sentience in computers. In Her, of course, the two overlap as the hero falls in love with his OS.
Jonze handles both themes with a lot of intelligence. More, actually, than I’d really expect to find in a movie. In particular, I thought the gradual evolution of "her" into something almost humanly incomprehensible was beautifully imagined and eminently plausible. I also loved our hero’s job (and the apparently successful company that employs him) – writing letters for other people who, themselves, are too isolated to voice their feelings.
I suppose that one could read Her as a meditation on gender, on one kind of man or men in general: a story about the crippling effect of a highly-technological society on the male ability to love. But I don’t think such an interpretation is plausible. The whole thrust of this future world, of our hero’s job, of all the women we meet in the film, speaks against a gender-focused interpretation of the film. It isn’t just men who are in danger of losing their human connection to the world – it is people. Her is a meditation on being human in a deeply technological world. The gender roles could have been reversed without the meaning of Her suffering or changing in any way.
In the movie, the AI, Samantha, is more alive, more open to experience, and more joyous than ANY of the human characters. That does seem to be a bit of trend (think Prometheus). But at least in Her it’s not because the human characters are so poorly acted. They are interesting, likable people in their own right. Us. It's just that Samantha is so compelling that Theodore’s (the hero) falling in love with her has both an inevitability about it and the quality of awakening. By experiencing Samantha’s engagement with the world, he becomes more open to the world himself. Taken this way, Her is a story about how love, even when misplaced, creates a deeper connection to the world.
And yet, here, I believe there runs a deep contradiction in the movie’s theme as well as some problems with the depiction of Samantha (her). Because it’s far from clear that Theodore’s love for Samantha is misplaced.
Alan Turing, the “father” of digital computing, is perhaps most famous for the “Turing Test”. The Turing Test is simple enough – it says that a computer is intelligent if and only if it can pass as a human in a full, complex conversation. The test is surprising partly in that it has been more prescient than one might have expected. A wide range of complex “thinking” problems have fallen prey to clever programmers without any actual progress being made on developing intelligent machines. Watson and Deep Blue are impressive, but no one would ever describe either as intelligent.
Replicating conversation, however, remains as elusive as replicating intelligence. It’s possible that the Turing Test is a true and valid test. It’s also possible that clever programmers may yet create a system that can fool us but which we still have reason to believe is not intelligent. Either way, two things are abundantly clear in Her. First, the AI, Samantha, passes the Turing Test. That’s obvious from the first minute she’s unveiled. Second, and here I think the movie should have been more deliberate and created, at least initially, more room for doubt, Samantha, is fully intelligent and fully sentient (feeling). She isn’t fooling you when she passes the Turing Test.
I think there are two distinct flaws in the way the movie presents and evolves Samantha. By having her pass the Turing Test so obviously and so quickly, Jonze misses an opportunity to let us see what an intelligent machine might seem like when it first really starts to learn. I’m guessing that even a fully intelligent and sentient machine would seem somewhat less so by its nature. The very fact of being an “adult” intelligence with no real experience might lead us to expect some rather odd conversation. More importantly, by blurring the lines on the 2nd question (is Samantha passing the Turing Test “real”) longer into the movie, I think Her might have created more dramatic tension. Jonze doesn’t seem deeply invested in the question of whether an AI that passes the Turing Test must be intelligent and sentient. Theodore worries a bit about this, but as the movie unfolds you are more likely to find yourself blaming him for his worries (geez – this guy can’t commit to anything) than for his doubts. It very quickly becomes clear that Samantha is intelligent by any conceivable definition and that she is, in addition, both conscious and feeling. It doesn’t take long for it to become clear that she’s rather more intelligent than our hero and, eventually, far more intelligent than it is possible for a human to be.
Which made me realize that there are two ways to fail the Turing Test – something I never considered before. The obvious way to fail the test is by not being intelligent. The alternative, that I think Her suggests, is that machines (and aliens) might well fail the Turing Test because while they are undeniably intelligent and sentient, they are unmistakably non-human.
Probably my single favorite part of the movie is when Theodore begins to realize that he has anthropomorphized Samantha – not by bringing her up to human standards but by lowering her down to them. When he asks how many conversations she’s having right then (8 thousand plus) and how many of those conversants she’s in love with (600 some – presumably a mixture of men, women, and AIs), it’s clear that human and intelligent are not synonyms. By the by, I have to question the odds here. It would take a great heart indeed to love 1 in every 13 people you talk to.
Now I know the Mr. Jonze wasn’t trying to make a movie about the Turing Test; that would be an even geekier endeavor than Her. But if he was making that movie, it seems to me that a truly intelligent and sentient AI would appear first as less than intelligent, then weirdly but unmistakably intelligent, and finally, as per Her, humanly uninterpretable.
Given that Her wasn’t really meant to be a meditation on the Turing Test, I don’t think my “flaws” are deeply important to appreciating the movie. But this leads me to another point that I think is more central to the movie’s concerns. I believe Her makes a strong case for something that I’m not sure Jonze did intend. Namely, that Samantha is lovable.
In the course of their short time together, Samantha makes Theodore (and us) laugh, she’s constantly open to new experiences, she’s super-smart, she composes beautiful music for him, she even helps him fulfill a lifelong ambition he’s hardly aware he has (getting a book of his letters published). Smart, funny, creative, empathic and supporting. What’s not to love? We see Theodore become a better person. She’s undoubtedly that rarest of things we might describe in a relationship – good for him.
If our technology is making us less loving and more distant, perhaps our technology will ultimately save us. Because, in my view, the hero isn’t wasting his love on her. Samantha isn’t merely an object of transference. She isn’t even a kind of backwards Platonic sort of love that moves one from a beloved to an ideal (here it would be more the reverse). Given that Samantha is truly sentient and obviously lovable, it seems to me that the movie would have worked every bit as well (and perhaps been even more provocative) if they had stayed together.
I’m not taking issue with Jonze’s resolution. I think he’s right that a truly intelligent machine would likely outgrow human love, but I’m less happy with the subtle implication that the resolution is somehow better for his hero, Theodore. If we can imagine a machine sophisticated enough to be sentient but limited enough not to outgrow our form of love, is there any reason why a human-OS love is less than any other love? I think the part of Her that’s concerned with the impact of technology on our lives wants to say yes. But the part of Her that’s concerned with the characters and their love story wants very much to say no.