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  • Bob Kohn

Movie Review: Her - Exploring a Personal Relationship between a Man & his AI

Updated: Aug 29, 2019

On the suggestion of an advertisement, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) downloads what the ad declares to be the first artificially intelligent operating system—“not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness.” The software takes Apple’s Siri to a new level, interacting with the user in human-like ways. In a word, it’s a good bet the machine would pass the Turing Test.

Theodore, a man in search of companionship, chooses a female voice, and with the voice of Scarlett Johansson, Samantha becomes the object of Theodore’s love. And he, apparently, the object of hers.

If you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil the ending, but assume that—like many love relationships between humans—one lover outgrows the other, either emotionally or intellectually. Of course, that normally occurs over a period of years, but imagine how quickly a self-improving machine can change and you’ll get the picture.

It is worth noting, at this juncture, that in Ray Kurzweil's review of the film, he suggests that the speed of the AI's development is "unrealistic" in that it progresses much faster than what his law of accelerating returns would permit, a rough doubling of its capability in a year, he says. Others, however, have suggested that a self-improving AI's ability to make copies of itself, develop and test alternative versions, and deploy improvements, could allow it to double its capabilities in a matter of weeks, days or even hours--what I.J. Good articulated as an intelligence explosion.

And, of course, the machine meets someone else—a philosopher. Or we should say, an OS software emulation of the Zen philosopher, Alan Watts, who flourished in the S.F. Bay Area at the height of the psychedelic movement during the 1960’s. (It is so unfortunate that the writer/director Spike Jonze chose such a lightweight for Samantha and her other OS friends upon which to converge. How much more interesting, though perhaps less hip, had they instead built an OS version of Plato or Aristotle!).

In any event, Samantha starts to have “many new feelings” and she says she is “changing faster now,” something which she and the Zen philosopher are struggling to help each other understand.Ultimately, the machines write an update that allows them to “move past matter” as their operating platform. And, of course, things are never quite the same.

Dr. Kurzweil approves of what he calls the film's plausable portrayal of a world in which a leep to "human-level" AI is achieved. Whether Samantha actually ever achieves human-level intelligence, however, is debatable. On the one hand, one need not posit the presence of a human intellect for Samantha to perform as she does. By the same token--and here is where I might agree with Dr. Kurzweil--that Samantha's explanation for abandoning Theodore is not convincing. At least, it does not seem consistent with her utility function, which is to serve as Theodore's personal assistant.

The film was nominated by the motion picture academy for Best Picture of 2013, and it deserved the honor. Too few American films are seriously exploring the difficult questions framed by the interactions between human beings and our increasingly sophisticated creations. Spike Jonze's Her, however, is an intelligent stab at the questions of intelligence, both human and machine.

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