I saw “Her” recently, it was a beauty of a film. It’s a romance of sorts, between Joaquin Phoenix and a “Artificially Intelligent Operating System” voiced by Scarlett Johanssen. It wades into a lot of fun new territory in a number of ways. A huge chunk of the film is just Phoenix by himself onscreen, talking to Johanssen, who is only present as a “computer” thing about the size of a deck of cards. And it works, truly and surprisingly well- the scenes play out pretty naturally, and the characters came across rich and humane. There’s also some neat presentations of the just-around-the-corner sort of future in which the movie’s set (Joaquin Phoenix’s job is ghostwriting heartfelt handwritten letters, for example). One of the choices that I thought was most interesting was the romantical/relational dynamics between the two leads- they played all the emotional cues exactly the same as two humans would. They got to know each other in the same kind of chatty/flirty way, they mistrust each other the way that humans do, etc.
I mean, from a film perspective, that makes sense- it’s a fun, cool challenge to strip away familiar elements of a romantic interaction (holding hands, staring into each others eyes, etc.), while trying to maintain the emotional honesty that makes such interactions believable. I just couldn’t suspend enough disbelief for it to work, unfortunately. I mean, at no point does Phoenix wonder whether or not Johanssen’s character is actually conscious, or capable of love, or any of the questions I would have in that scenario. Wouldn’t he have to wonder if she was just an advanced form of Cleverbot? The only precursor technologies shown in the film aren’t even close to intelligence, no one seems to have anticipated this radically new intelligence in the world, and yet none of the characters have any doubt about the humanness of the AI, they only worry about their relationships with it.
Duplicity and falseness in computerized representation is nothing new. We all know that that’s probably not an actual Nigerian Prince emailing you for help moving funds, and we know that there probably aren’t “hot singles waiting to meet now!”- but none of the characters in “Her” show any of the same doubts and concerns for authenticity. Phoenix is a professional letter writer, and it’s implied that a) he’s been writing both sides of some couples correspondence for years (both sides are happy customers), and b) these ghostwritten personal letters are something like a popular fiction genre in this far future- writers sell collections of their letters in hardbound editions, etc. The inherent falseness of his job doesn’t bother him, or anyone else. And this seems a reasonable view of the future as well- our definitions of “real” and “authentic” and “trustworthy” are always in flux. I remember when I first heard about Match.com and online dating, I assumed that issues of authenticity and realness would be too much and would sink the whole enterprise. I was way off.
I wonder if “Her” is right about the future, or if I am. Are we going to accept AIs easily and comfortably, because they feel real enough to us somehow? Or is there going to be mistrust and doubt? Or will the situation never arrive at all, because the future is almost certain to be weirder than anything we imagine it to be?
I’m looking forward to it.