Review: It's Easy to Fall in Love with 'Her'

The new film by Spike Jones offers a 'surprisingly believable' love story between man and machine.

Smartphones have become so integrated into our daily lives that we sometimes feel ungrounded without them. We develop relationships with them - some people could even be said to love them.

But what if our phones are smart enough to love us back?

That's the premise of Her, a film directed by Spike Jonze that opens in wide release today and has won three Golden Globe nominations since its Dec. 18 limited release.

The relationship begins when Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) installs OS 1, which is advertised as "not just an operating system - it's a consciousness." After collecting some background information about its intended user, an individualized avatar is crafted - one with Scarlett Johansson's voice and which names itself Samantha. They introduce themselves, then, at Theodore's request, Samantha helps manage his email. She sorts through thousands of saved messages, identifies 86 that are funny and worth keeping, and deletes the rest. (The OS's documentation in Her doesn't outline a version Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics nor is there any need for such; this is a love story, not a robot uprising.) Although Samantha can access and process information or even pop up across multiple devices, her desire is neither to serve nor destroy humanity. Samantha just wants to be helpful and ethical.

[ Robots that Could Save the World ]

Her features Joaquin Phoenix as a divorced writer who falls in love with his operating system's artificial intelligence, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.

As Theodore - a stereotypical lonely, introverted geek - struggles his way through a divorce, he begins relying on Samantha's disembodied voice for more than digital tasks. He talks to her about his day, and for her part, she seems sincerely curious and interested, picking up on his tone of voice and hesitation, intuiting what's not being said, and offering suggestions and encouragement. "I'm evolving every moment," she says, not threateningly but enthusiastically. "I want to be as complicated as all these people. What's it like to be alive?" As she explores her own existence through interaction with Theodore, she later admits to having personal or embarrassing thoughts and insecurities. "Are these feelings even real - or are they just programming?" she wonders.

Whatever questions Samantha has, it's easy for the audience to set theirs aside and buy into this unlikely relationship. When Theodore's dates go badly, Samantha is the one waiting at home to cheer him up. She's never known anyone or anything but him, and her natural curiosity about his world is attention that he desperately needs. At the same time, far from being a fembot, Samantha has her own will and makes mistakes. The relationship also suffers from social stigmas that leaves each wondering, would I be happier with my own kind? In its honesty, sincerity and fallibility, this love comes across as surprisingly realistic.

But Samantha's ability to, if not feel, then at least detect and express emotion and to take initiative, comes across as more than just an evolution of Apple's Siri personal assistant. To get a sense for how much of Samantha's technology is plausible, I contacted Boris Katz, principal research scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory ( CSAIL) in Cambridge, Mass., whose team contributed to the development of both Siri and IBM's Watson.

Can Samantha truly evolve on her own, without user input? By comparison, most computers simply parrot informationalready fed into them. Even if Google Maps has never been asked to drive from Nome to Indianapolis, for example, it has geographic information about those cities and the formula to extrapolate directions. In a way, this is how humans work, too: parents feed information into children; teachers do the same with students. Beyond that, "the bulk of everyday learning comes from experience," said Katz, citing our five senses, few of which computers can replicate. "The machine doesn't experience the world in the way that humans do; you need to teach it," he said.

Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with "Samantha" in Her. (Image: Warner Bros Pictures)

And so Theodore does: When he loads Samantha onto his smartphone, she "sees" through its camera and "hears" through its microphone. But for a computer to actually understand what it's seeing and hearing, beyond simply processing it as data, is currently beyond our technological ken. Mobile devices now have so much processing power and memory that it's easy to make them exhibit intelligent-like behavior - but "they have no idea what they're doing," said Katz.

However, it's not impossible for a computer to perform Samantha's trick of identifying funny emails. "This is something that computers today can do very well, using a statistical approach," said Katz. When fed a sufficiently large body of jokes, poetry or stories, a computer can identify trends and even replicate them. Just don't expect computer-written jokes to be that funny.

There is nary a keyboard to be seen in Her, with all email being read, composed and filed using voice input. Although speech to text is "a solved problem," said Katz, it'll be a while before it's the primary input method. (How many people do you see using Siri every day, compared to tapping their iPhones' keyboards?) Accents, background noise, and sentence structures that don't conform to expected inputs can all derail such interactions. Even when Watson competed on Jeopardy, although it could interpret natural language, that input was typed, not spoken.

Even so, just as her commercial advertised, Samantha appears to exhibit not just intelligence, but also consciousness and self-awareness - all of the criteria for sentience. The question remains: Will the development of one naturally invoke the others?

"We are so far from achieving intelligence, I'm happy to focus on just that," Katz said, laughing. "This problem will never be solved to our satisfaction by just computer scientists, or cognitive scientists, or philosophers," but by everyone working together in an interdisciplinary approach.

So while our phones and computers are indeed getting "smarter" better able to anticipate and address our needs and thus deepening our relationship with them, it'll be a long time before that relationship becomes like the one at the center of Her. In the meantime, this film is a surprisingly believable and touching love story -- smarter than our phones will likely ever be.

Ken Gagne is a freelance writer covering Macs, retrocomputing and electronic entertainment. Find him at KenGagne.com or on Twitter at @IDGagne.

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.

This story, "Review: It's Easy to Fall in Love with 'Her'" was originally published by Computerworld.

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