‘Her’ is a film about a man who falls in love with his operating system. Not Windows, Mac OS or even Linux, but a new talking operating system with artificial intelligence called Samantha (played by Scarlett Johansson). The film is set in the not too distant future, during the technological revolution futurologists term the ‘Technological Singularity’: the point at which emergent artificial superintelligence suddenly causes a runaway up-turn in technological growth. Caught in the middle of this is the mild-mannered, socially awkward protagonist, Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix).
What makes this film so fascinating is the various thought experiments it poses. If superintelligent computers equate to emotionally intelligent persons, and it was not possible in effect to make a distinction between humans and artificial-intelligent beings (or OS), could emotional bonds not form, and in time become the primary relationships in our lives? During ‘Her’ we see society’s reaction to this phenomenon unfold. At first, disapproval, the idea that this bond is in some sense not real but artificial and therefore deficient, then towards being ubiquitous and therefore embraced as normative. Relationships determine human self-worth – our friends and family - they give us a consistent self-narrative through which we derive meaning and purpose.
Eros (meaning love in the non-sentimental or shallow sense) with a primary other, for most of humanity, is the pinnacle of the human experience, to have a spiritual and emotional connection with another. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to even equate this experience or longing with a defining characteristic of humanity. As such, what would it mean if our primary other was not a human being at all? How would we understand our sense of self if we ceased having significant relationships with other human beings?
There are many discoveries and inventions which have changed the way we live in this world. As new technologies come in there is always a minority on the peripheries which concludes the latest step, in some sense, belittles their humanity, and as such they opt out. Take the convenience of Amazon, or what Social Media has done to our relationships, or our ability to be contacted anywhere and at any time. All of these for good reason have been boycotted by some. Such actions however have always struck me as somewhat futile and superficial. Pronouncements of this kind invariably communicate how sanctimonious we are, as opposed to highlighting significant issues. ‘Do not let you left hand know what your right hand is doing’ comes to mind.
The Singularity as is depicted in ‘Her’, if it happens, will be the ultimate turning point for humanity, and will almost certainly ride in upon the same wave of inevitability. It too will have its detractors, who bemoan the demise of humanity, and they will have a point, but one overshadowed by the inescapability of change. So, like the protagonist Theodore, we will all need to come to terms with the change, however brutal and painful, because it will be unavoidable.