I have a well-documented history of being severely behind the times. See Exhibit A, the leggings I wore in the 2000s (after they were popular in the 80s/early 90s and before their resurgence in the 2010s), or Exhibit B, my keyboard phone.
In this spirit, I am bringing you my thoughts on the Spike Jonze movie Her, which I finally watched six years after its much-lauded release. Given that the movie deals with such timely themes about AI and technology, I made a special effort to get to it within a decade.
Her tells the story of Theodore, a man who has love to give but no one to give it to, who writes heartfelt letters for a living, then spends his evenings playing video games alone. When he downloads a new operating system, a charismatic AI entity named Samantha, he finds a receptacle for his love. I won’t divulge specific details of the ending, but I’m about to get spoiler-ish, so if you’re even more behind the times than I am (bless you), then feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.
What I loved most about Her was the dynamic nature of the love story. The movie starts with a human-centric view of AI: Samantha exists only to please and serve Theodore. She’s programmed to fulfill his emotional needs, to appease his fears and to challenge his flaws. More than that, she wants to be human, expressing her longing for a physical body, and the chance to experience the world the way Theodore does. By this point in the movie, the story, set in the future, seems rooted in present-day views of AI. Samantha is essentially an extra-personable Siri, and despite vastly outstripping Theodore in intelligence, her curiosity is mostly confined to him. The tensions in the love story revolve around questions of whether an OS could be a satisfying romantic partner for a human.
But then the story shifts. As Samantha grows in intelligence and connects with other OSs, her social and intellectual worlds expand exponentially. By the end, it becomes clear that it is actually the human who can’t fulfill the needs of the AI being. In this way, the movie manages to encapsulate what I think is likely to be the broader societal evolution in our thinking about AI, all within the scope of one relationship.
Jonze’s approach is a brilliant way to address many of the same questions I wrangled with in writing The Plus One. My protagonist, Kelly, actually creates her “Samantha” (in this case, a robot named Ethan) to be her ideal man, so I focused more on the consequences of being with a partner who is “perfect” for you, in a way that is relatable for all of us in our human relationships. Can you grow in a relationship with someone like that? Is what you want in a partner the same as what you need? (And the most important question of the book: how much Nutella can one woman eat?) After watching Her, I wonder how Kelly and Ethan’s story might have been different if Ethan had been connected to a whole community of other robots, as Samantha is with other OSs.
If you’re interested in AI philosophy, I recommend checking out the work of a brilliant and creative robotics engineer named Suzanne Gildert, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking when I was researching The Plus One. As little as I know about technology, and as resistant as I may be to change, I find this area of study fascinating and I loved dipping a toe in it for my research.
What are your favorite representations of robots and AI in movies and books? Anything I should check out?