“Her” & Artificial Immortality


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Her is available on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow, May 13. View the trailer:

Perhaps the most absurd scene in the movie “Her” is when Theodore and Samantha have what we’ll call, for lack of a better metaphor, “phone sex.”  This scene is actually the second of its kind in the film. The first, though, earns slightly more credibility from the fact that a real human is on the other end: She is unseen and a stranger to Theodore, but she’s really a woman. The second time is with Samantha, an operating system.

About forty minutes in, as the scene unfolds, the screen fades to black, and for a minute or so, the only thing the audience hears are the voices of Theodore and Samantha describing their mutual sex fantasy. The audience has nowhere to look and must simply listen to the rising intensity in their voices, escalating until both reach fever pitch and finally “climax.”

It is as uncomfortable as it sounds, but the similarity of the two scenes makes it clear: Theodore’s sexual encounter with Samantha feels like only a small step from his earlier interaction with a real woman. Both experiences are functionally identical. There’s no bodily connection at all. To Theodore, the experience seems like a subtle shift, not a seismic one. Still, the difference couldn’t be greater: one is a woman, and one is not.

Though this scene seems foreign and futuristic, it’s not that far from reality. Recent news came out about “smart” sex toys linked to your phone. Using Bluetooth technology, soon you’ll be able to stimulate your partner long-distance. And while phone sex with a computer may seem like a leap to us, pornography is basically the same thing—one is looking at a simulation, while the other is listening to it.

For Theodore, the OS actually makes for a better sexual experience. These scene is presented as less weird and more natural actually—no negotiating with another personality and her sexual fantasies. The OS makes it simpler and easier, and “simpler” and “easier” are the reasons people use computers for everything else. So why not phone sex?

The phone sex scene serves as a turning point for Samantha. “You woke me up,” she tells Theodore. “Something changed and there’s no going back.” The exact transformation is glossed over, but it has to do with a shift toward desire. “You’ve helped me discover my ability to want,” Samantha says.

She had expressed desire and excitement before, but they seem to grow exponentially now. Meanwhile, the relationship between these lovers follows an otherwise familiar narrative arc. Other references are made to their sex life, but we are mercifully spared from being privy to it. Eventually, we mostly forget about this scene, but we shouldn’t. Sex with a machine is problematic. It’s more than problematic. It’s simply not sex. Remembering that will help us stay grounded.

Why do we need to stay grounded? Because the movie will make the lines between man and machine even blurrier. Thoughts and feelings, both human and artificial, will get much harder to parse out.

But why does it matter? It matters because how we define “artificial intelligence” shapes the question of “what makes us human?” If computers can do what we humans do, then what makes humans unique? If computers can “think” or “feel,” then should we call them human? If not, why not? What keeps humans distinct?

These questions may seem outlandish to you now. But these are not mere fictions. Real people are asking these questions.

Alan Turing, a famous computer scientist, once asked, “Can machines think?” Today, we refer to computers as “thinking” or “learning.” And not only in everyday conversations. Computer engineers are talking this way too. If we program computers to “think,” does that diminish what it means to be human? Must our definition get narrower? However, if we can remember Theodore and Samantha’s problem of sex, then we can stay grounded as we face these fuzzier issues.

Computers with Feelings

Let’s start with the fact that Samantha expresses her emotions to Theodore. Feelings. She expresses desire and frustration and excitement and confusion, among others. And while Samantha is an “artificially intelligent operating system,” the things she is describing are not feelings but programmed responses. Knowing this, Samantha faces a moment of existential crisis: “Are [my] feelings even real, or just programming?” she asks Theodore. He responds, “You feel real to me.” But Theodore’s response ignores the problem of sex: Her feelings are not actual feelings just as Theodore’s sexual encounter with her was not actually sex. The perception is not reality.

Computer processes and feelings do have one thing in common: They lack a visible form. We might even describe them both as products of electrical signals. But a sheep and sweater are not the same thing even if they both involve wool. We want to believe that Samantha’s computer processes are real “emotions.” But the problem of sex remains unmoved. Even though Samantha herself calls them “feelings,” they are not. Even though, to Theodore, they sound like feelings—and evoke real feelings in him—hers are not.

“Smart” Tech

The problem of sex doesn’t only dismantle the notion of a computer having feelings. The same limitations impede Samantha’s “thoughts” and her “learning” as well. Yet, while we know the sex wasn’t real, and while it’s easy to argue that the feelings aren’t real, we have a much harder time explaining why computers don’t “think.” And in “Her” we’re led to believe that her “learning” is real.

Consider our own everyday surroundings: We are submerged in a society where our phones are “smart.” You can even attend “machine learning” conferences—Mark Zuckerberg has. Or look at how Nest’s “smart-thermostat” was recently described:

“The Nest thermostat is designed to learn when and how you like to heat up your home. After a 12-day set-up period, the device has learned your basic schedule, is able to turn the heating on and off intelligently.”

Descriptions like this matter. Nest is not a niche product; Google recently acquired the company for $3.2 billion. What is here called “learning” is clearly not learning but programming. It involves a “12-day set-up period” after which it works “intelligently.” These words are being hijacked as metaphors to make the thermostat’s inner-workings comprehensible to us, but the metaphors misguide our understanding at the same time. We’ve begun to believe the metaphors are realities, that computers actually can be “intelligent” and “learn.”

Machine learning is not analogous to human learning. To believe it is, we might as well believe that you can have sex with a machine. Computers do not have sex, feelings, or thoughts. They do not learn. They have no gender. We’ve simply deployed metaphors from our human experience to describe what we’ve programmed computers to do.

Not all engineers are misled by their own metaphors. Remember IBM’s Watson, the computer that beat Ken Jennings on Jeopardy? Watson’s team leader, Dave Ferucci, likes to tell crowds that “whereas Watson played using a room’s worth of processors and 20 tons of air-conditioning equipment, its opponents relied on a machine [the brain] that fits in a shoebox and can run for hours on a tuna sandwich.” Ferucci sees a computer like “Her” for what it is. Samantha is not a “her” but an “it.”

The Android Evolution?

Once we think about it, this all seems sensible to us. But “Her” takes us one more step, and here’s where the movie fails to hold together conceptually: Jonze pushes this concept of “learning” to extremes. Remember that evolutionary timeline with monkeys becoming Neanderthals becoming humans? In the movie, Jonze takes this timeline and puts C3PO further along, past humans. The movie implies that any further human development will involve becoming more like computers. Like Her. To move beyond intelligent, we will need to become artificially intelligent. We’ll need steroids for the brain. Already, somewhere between 6% and 25% of people would be willing to implant computer chips in their brain (Forbes).

The movie culminates with Samantha becoming an “advanced” life form, moving beyond Theodore. Samantha is “learning” and “evolving” so much that, in her quest for self-understanding, she starts talking with other humans, and eventually other artificial intelligences. She communicates “post-verbally” with them—suggesting that she has “advanced” beyond language. She explains to Theodore, “I’m having so many new feelings that haven’t been felt before [by any humans], so there aren’t any words to describe them.” The assumption being that human evolution primarily requires having more information. Evolution is a matter of how much data you collect and how networked that data is. The more data that Samantha can collect and connect, the more evolved she becomes.

When Samantha finally breaks the news that she’s leaving Theodore, he asks, “Where are you going?” She responds, “I’m not sure, but if you ever get there, come find me.” The implication is clear: Theodore must further “evolve”—the word is used at least twice in the movie—if he ever hopes to reunite with Samantha. He must become like Her, like a computer.

Up to this point, Jonze has merely asked viewers to imagine that Samantha’s programming can simulate thoughts and feelings. But now he requires that we believe Samantha is out ahead of us, that we could reach her someday in our own evolutionary development. All we need is more data, better processing speeds, and more reliable memory. Where can I upgrade?

Are we there yet?

So, are computers simply higher life forms? Are we all headed that way? Is it program or perish? Some people today truly think so. They see downloading the mind into a computer as humanity’s hope for immortality.

Take Dmitry Itskov. You’ve probably never heard of him, but last year, the New York Times profiled the Russian multimillionaire in anticipation of the 2045 Global Future Congress he hosted. This conference wasn’t some Second Life get-together in a hotel by the airport. It was hosted at Lincoln Hall in Manhattan and included speakers from Harvard, MIT, and Oxford. Together, they explored the possibilities of uniting man and machine. In the article, Itskov is quoted: “Most of the world is suffering. What we’re doing here does not look like the behavior of grown-ups. We’re killing the planet and killing ourselves.” The article continues, “To change that picture, he reasons, we must change our minds, or give them a chance to “evolve,” to use one of his favorite words.” There’s that word again.

Another speaker at the Congress was Ray Kurzweil, currently Director of Engineering at Google. The same Google that recently acquired the artificial intelligence company, DeepMind, for $400 million dollars, in addition to 7 other robotics companies in December 2013. Kurzweil is famous for his outspoken support of merging man a machine.  At the conference, Kurzweil claimed computers and machines would help humans become functionally immortal in 30 years, by 2045. The Daily Mail reported, “humans will be able to upload their entire minds to computers and become digitally immortal.” Like Itskov, Kurzweil certainly sees humans and computers as being on the same evolutionary spectrum.

He also sees computer “learning” and “thinking” as functionally equivalent to its human counterparts. Learning, for him, is basically a data problem. “Based on conservative estimates of the amount of computation you need to functionally simulate a human brain, we’ll be able to expand the scope of our intelligence a billion-fold.” The brain on steroids.

Itskov and Kurzweil aren’t the only ones. Researchers at IBM are looking to make Kurzweil’s dream come true by building a “brain in a box.” The Research SyNAPSE Project has already raised $53 million in funding. With news like this, the plot of “Her” is not some far-off future. It’s a reality being pursued by big money involving some of the biggest companies in the world.

Love in the Age of Machines

Kurzweil’s claims and IBM’s ambitions mistake their metaphors for reality. Like Theodore, they haven’t faced up to the problem of sex with machines. There is no sex without a body. And neither are there feelings or thoughts without the body. The brain is not a complex computer. Nor is it “the ghost in the machine.” Mind and body are inseparable. Yet for some reason, these companies believe that a machine could harbor the minds of people so that they might live forever.

Wendell Berry writes: “Is there such a thing as a mind which is merely a brain which is merely a machine? Would one have a mind if one had no body, or no body except for a brain . . . if one had no sense organs, no hands nor ability to move or speak, no sensory pains or pleasures, no appetites, no bodily needs?” Even if it were theoretically possible, Berry concludes, such a mind would have nothing to think about; it would have no inputs. “A machine, if shot into outer space never to return, would simply go on and on being a machine. . . . A human mind, necessarily embodied, if shot into outer space never to return, would die as soon as it went beyond its sustaining connections and references.” And the mind downloaded to a machine is not much different from the mind launched into space—most of its sense organs have been amputated. A mind in a machine is not a muscleman, but an amputee.

“Her” draws us into a strange and foreign future, but the movie carries with it some of our own metaphorical mistakes. “Learning” and “thinking” and “phone sex” help us to make sense of our world. Likewise, good movies can help us reach and grasp and make sense of. Unfortunately, “Her” gives us the wrong images to think with. Humans and computers do not inhabit the same evolutionary timeline. We are not different degrees on the same continuum. We are on different continuums.

The contrast between computers and humans is most stark when Theodore learns that Samantha is in love with 641 other people. Samantha seems almost surprised that this is a problem. She doesn’t understand his desire for exclusivity or his sense of loss. How could she? Exclusivity is capacity we learn from our bodies. The limits of being in one place at a time. Samantha exults in being free from these limits. But the price she pays is a limited understanding of love—if it is love at all. Without a body, she has no context in which to understand sacrifice. Yet “there is no greater love that to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Sacrifice and love are deeply intertwined. And we cannot know either one without our bodies.

Computers offer us some amazing and tantalizing possibilities that can, at times, seem endless. And they may one day even offer us a version of immortality. But it will be a trade-off. It will be a version of immortality evacuated of meaning, for without love, and thus without sacrifice, it will be an existence without cost. It will be an immortality void of value.

“Where are you going?” Theodore asks. “I’m not sure,” Samantha replies, “but if you ever get there, come find me.” For Theodore’s sake, I hope he never does.

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About the Contributor

Adam Graber

Adam Graber
Adam Graber is an editor at Tyndale House Publishers. He has written for Catapult Magazine and the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture. He blogs at thesecondeclectic.com and on Twitter @AdamGraber

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