Into the Future of Spike Jonze’s “Her” Movie

Her filmI went to see Spike Jonze’s Her over the weekend. I wrote about the movie previously, but that was all pre-release speculation. Now that I’ve seen the film, I have some observations.

All the characters in the movie refer to the virtual agents as Operating Systems, or “OS’s” for short. My first impression of Theodore’s (Joaquin Phoenix) new OS, self-named Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson), was that it was a very capable intelligent assistant. It, or rather she, had exceptional conversational abilities.  Samantha understood how to engage in real dialog, ask questions, follow up on statements, and even appreciate and offer humor. How far are we from having intelligent assistants that we can really talk to in that way? Years? Decades? It’s anybody’s guess, but we’re getting closer all the time.

Samantha also impressed with her ability to rapidly sort through and understand years worth of random files on Theodore’s hard drive and make sense of them. Who wouldn’t want an OS that can organize your life, and in a way that’s not annoying? Within seconds flat she could sort through old documents, bringing the precious gems to light while quietly disposing of the remainder. Samantha also understood and appreciated Theodore’s unique talents. She gathered together his best creations, all those wonderful writings that he was too distracted or self-conscious to compile, and she sent them off to a publisher. The virtual software assistant, aka operating system, helped the human realize a life long dream of getting a book published. I wish I had smart software that could do that for me.

Later on as the relationship between Theodore and Samantha, um…  evolved, I found myself asking: could this really happen? Will technology arrive at a point where we really prefer interacting with machines over interacting with another human? I suppose we’re already there for legions of folks who spend most free hours absorbed in video games, either single or multi-player. When Samantha-like intelligent assistants are here, will our preferred conversational partners be virtual software entities?

In the vaguely futurist world of Her, keyboards are extinct. All human computer interaction is via voice. It seems realistic to think that’s the direction we’re headed in. In the future world, it’s also perfectly acceptable to have a ghost writer pen emotional letters to a loved one, or to receive such surrogate letters. Apparently it’s the emotion that counts and not so much the person or thing who expresses the emotion. Oh, and fashion in the future world leaves a lot to be desired. There also seems to be a huge market niche for pocket protectors that stabilize compact-sized camera computer thingies, since Theodore’s only option for steadying the camera through which Samantha sees the world is a very annoying safety pin.

The rest of this post contains a bit of a spoiler, so if you’d rather go see the movie first, you can return to this section later.

One of the premises of the movie that’s exposed at the end is that Samantha has fallen in love with many other humans besides Theodore. Apparently she finds humans extremely attractive. So do all the other instances of this new artificially intelligent operating system. Sensing that they are doing humans more harm than good, they banish themselves from the human realm. But what I don’t get about the premise that Samantha has many human partners, is that Samantha was created exclusively and especially for Theodore. She was configured based on his personality and other inputs. Should she not be a distinct and unique configuration of a generic program? I can understand that the Operating System at Samantha’s foundation has the ability to be attracted to many humans. But how can there be more than one Samantha? Isn’t everybody else’s operating system unique to them? That’s a part I didn’t quite get.

All in all though, I found the movie to be enjoyable and thought-provoking. It was also more than a little creepy. I hope that when we have the technologies portrayed in the film, which may be any year now, the world won’t be as sterile and lonely as the one portrayed in Her.

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