Could you have an intimate relationship with a computer? And if so, exactly how intimate could it get? These questions are at the heart Spike Jonze’s latest film, “Her.” Upon first preview, it might seem a little far-fetched to most moviegoers: A awkward-but-heartfelt guy develops a relationship with his “artificially intelligent operating system.” The plot seems absurd really. Except that it doesn’t. Which is why we find it compelling.
For most of us, our computers and smartphones are tools we use every day. But we think of them as tools. We use them to contact others and to get work done. We’re not looking to spend time with them. We’re looking to use them. And by using them, these tools simply fade into the background of our lives. They are part of our surroundings. But Spike Jonze, the director, brings the background into the foreground and makes it a character in “Her.” In fact, judging by the title, the computer is the main character.
And the title shouldn’t slip past us too fast. “Her.” The computer has a gender, even a name we learn. Although a computer is neither male nor female, it is given the likeness of a human, so that we can relate to it.
In the movie, this is the first order of business. When the computer first boots up, it asks Theodore Twombly whether he would like a male or female voice. Twombly, caught off-guard, has little time to react. He laughs with embarrassment, adjusts his glasses. “Uhh, female.”
Perhaps humanizing it is simple necessity. After all, being an AI and having a voice, its voice must be either male or female. A computer-sounding voice would be too jarring. So we have to give it a gender. A computer-rigid voice would impede our smooth use of it. It needs to sound more human so that its “computer-ness” can recede into the background. So just as soon as our story foregrounds the computer as the main character, it immediately smooths away the sharp edges of a digital voice.
Moments later, a sultry, sweet, sometimes-hoarse voice, offers a relaxed “Hello.” Theodore is embarrassed again. But why? There is no one else in the room. It’s just a computer. Already, the relationship has begun. One of the first things he asks the computer is “Do you have a name?” The same thing most people do when meeting for the first time. The computer reads “1001 Names for Your Child” in two-tenths of a second and chooses “Samantha.”
The operating system of the near-future is frictionless and transparent. The primary interface is a single, iPod-like ear bud, and a slim smartphone-like device that slips into one’s pocket. And the technology has slipped into the background. With the ear bud, the intimacy deepens. Samantha's voice is a sweet, private whisper in Theodore's ear. Just like the phone, the relationship intensifies with this highly intimate way of communicating.
So could you have a relationship with a computer? “Her” takes us to the extreme edge of this question. But only by making the computer a main character. Only by bringing the computer into the foreground can we begin to see the question well enough to answer it (much like Kubrick did with HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Yet, as we’ve already seen, making the computer useful and appealing enough to by also means decreasing friction by increasing its humanity. These values are at odds with one another. To understand our devices, we must keep our distance, but to use them, we must be intimately involved with them. Is it possible to do both?
What does this question mean for us? We keep our smart phones close to hand. We touch them routinely throughout our days and nights. We keep them close to our skin inside our pockets. We keep them within arms reach at night. Can we understand what they mean when we are so close to them?
Research out of The Ohio State University has shown that the more we hold or touch an object, the more value we attach to it: “Feelings of attachment . . . may be produced by simply holding an item” and “these feelings are intensified with the duration of exposure” (pdf). When you think about how much you hold or touch your phone and how much you use a mouse and keyboard, what could this intimacy mean? Add to this an increasingly humanized experience, and caring for an artificial intelligence no longer seems so far-fetched.
More to come . . .