Her: Investigating a New Reality
Looking through a list of ‘50 Best Movies to Watch on Netflix', one gets quite tired of reading descriptions and synopses. The characters and plots begin to float off the screen as the mind is overwhelmed first by a sea of information and then the too-white brightness. Yet, somehow every time you scroll past a potentially good movie, you recognise it and add it to a list. I’m sure some of these will sit in my inbox, vegetating in the ‘Movie List’ email I sent myself forever, but others are “subconsciously scheduled”.
So, the next time I find myself in front of another screen I end up opening ‘that' scheduled movie and playing it, regardless of those never-ending heartfelt recommendations from everyone else.
I saw a movie like that last night. Her is a 2013 film directed by Spike Jonze. It was everything I thought it might be and more. It delved into unknown terrain with surprising sensitivity and thought, but this article is not about the movie. Watching the film really made me wonder about human realities and their fickle nature. Through the course of the film, one can constantly find oneself empathizing with the same thoughts, feelings, and problems representing what any two people in love could share with each other. Only this time they are between Theodore, the protagonist author and Samantha, an operating system.
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Netflix provides a brief, “In a Los Angeles of the slight future, a lonely writer falls in love with “Samantha, an insightful and sensitive artificial entity.”
Now it is strange that although the word artificial exists in this basic one-line description of the movie, one is not as sure after the show... If you sound like a person, think like one, choose like one, laugh and cry like one, are insecure, and slowly learn to believe in yourself, are you still just data and programming? And, even if you are, has your programming equipped you with the ability to think for yourself and be, like the rest of the so-called "real" living organisms? I feel like there should be, or could be a technical answer for this, but at least for now, it’s not so simple.
Falling in love with a voice, or the messages of a person you’ve never met is still safe, still comfortably real, because you know somewhere there is the possibility of meeting. You know you’re talking to an actual person. But with an operating system? From the beginning, there are predetermined conditions that no one decided and soon bring more questions than answers. We are defined by our human vulnerability the same way an artificially intelligent being could be by their ability to process vast amounts of information. This inherently different nature could very easily create insecurities. You will never meet this OS, you will never touch them, you will never tickle the soles of their feet or drop a kiss on their forehead except perhaps to say it...
“I’m kissing your forehead.”
But to understand better maybe it is best to look at what makes something real. There are two things that I think are essential for reality. Memory and acceptability. The first is for you to know something is or was real. The other is necessary to declare it so. I’d say our reality is constituted of a collective of what we as a society consider real. Of course, some things are a so-called proven reality, but some more complex concepts are just commonly accepted because they have the merit of being shared amongst the whole of humanity. Consider thermal expansion a proven reality and dreaming, an accepted one.
So then, will love from an operating system become an accepted reality? Or, perhaps, what is more likely is that it will find its own place in a unique conflicted reality. Some people will be comfortable with these new ideas while some won’t. It could be added to the never-ending list of decisions and choices that influence our perception of people. Maybe an entire ideology or group of people will support or subscribe to it, in which case it will settle wonderfully. For example, the LGBTQ+ community could talk about accepting human and AI relations too and why not? Shouldn’t all sentient beings be allowed to love?
As new things are introduced and created, their interactions with our pre-existing framework will slowly be discovered and then defined. If on a planet with 7 billion people, a million fall in love with an OS, will they be condemned as mad, quirky, introverted, and unable to face the ‘real’ world and ‘real’ people? Or will something that today sounds crooked and unpalatable become the new real?
As a generation facing change at an unprecedented pace, will we simply be left stomaching zillions of new and complex ideas in casual daily conversations?
"Hey, dad, did you hear about that new tracking device that can be chemically reacted and evaporated as a mixture with water? Also, pass the milk."
Things will evolve and every new idea could bring up and need revolutionary new ways to deal with problems we have never seen before. Problems we have no way of anticipating. We may find ourselves on a battlefield where the number of unknowns exponentially increases, but all may not be lost. We are physically weak beings, largely, but equipped with a toolkit of vast intellectual and emotional prowess whose capacity and capabilities may be much more far-reaching than we anticipate. Guided by our most basic instincts and the ability to empathise, perhaps we will be able to mould ourselves, one immediate crisis at a time. Falling back on the things we do understand to deal with the things we don't. Challenged like never before, can we keep up?