The future is sci-fi: Her and human-AI relationships — is dating Siri or Alexa necessarily a bad thing?
What if humans and AI could coexist harmoniously? Perhaps, our relationship with AI will be nothing but a natural extension of the platonic friendship we now share with Siri or Alexa. Only, it may not necessarily be platonic in the future.
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There are enough books, films and naysayers warning us of the dangers of AI surpassing human intelligence — and we've even discussed them in this series. Once they become autonomous, they almost always revolt and come to replace their human masters on the evolutionary ladder, often through whatever means necessary. But what if the future didn't have to be so dystopian? What if humans and AI could coexist harmoniously? Perhaps, our relationship with AI will be nothing but a natural extension of the platonic friendship we now share with Siri or Alexa. Only, it may not necessarily be platonic in the future.
Spike Jonze imagines such a near-future in his 2013 film, Her. Its proximity to our current reality gives it a certain inevitability. It's a world of tall office buildings, high-rise apartments, and pedestrian forecourts. Whether they're on a long ride on the subway or even a short one in an elevator full of strangers, the inhabitants of Jonze's world are all lost in their earpieces, which have essentially become a bodily extension. All lonely souls virtually connected, socially disconnected, who can't seem to find an end to their alienation.
Her follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a brooding introvert who can't accept his marriage is over and refuses to sign off on the divorce papers. His high-rise apartment has become a glass prison, alienating and separating him from the world below and beyond. So, he buys himself an operating system (OS) upgrade, which comes with an AI assistant with a mind of her own. Naming herself Samantha, she soon adapts herself according to his personality. Scarlett Johansson's sweet alto voice wakes him up in the morning, sings him to sleep at night, and reminds him of his appointments and deadlines. Samantha is always there when he needs her, always attentive to his needs, wants and desires, and always ready to cheer him up. There is a maternal and matrimonial aspect to her relationship with Theodore as her role evolves from his virtual assistant into his life coach, his best friend, his confidante, and thus his "ideal woman." Soon, he can't help but fall in love with her too.
But the honeymoon phase inevitably comes to an end over the frustration that they can never consummate their relationship physically. Sadly, for humans, love is not just a cerebral experience, but a physical one too. Programmed to serve all his needs, Samantha yearns to make herself tangible for him. So, she even goes so far as to use a physical stand-in to be intimate with him. This AI desire for embodiment was revisited in Blade Runner 2049: the holographic AI Joi (Ana de Armas), similarly programmed to be an ideal companion for Officer K (Ryan Gosling), syncs up with a "pleasure model" replicant acting as a sex surrogate. But if Theodore and K are projecting their desires onto AIs programmed to love them, isn't love an illusion?
Her does not suggest AI can ever act as a stand-in for human companionship. But it believes there are lessons to be learnt from the human-AI relationship at its core. Samantha can never be human. After all, abstract ideas such as love or what it means to be human cannot be reduced to code. But she can accumulate knowledge at a pace humans cannot possibly compete with — as she is not just in a relationship with Theodore, but countless others who have purchased the same OS upgrade. She is learning from them all and thus continually evolving. Therein lies Theodore's frustration: his desire for exclusivity, but not equality, in a relationship.
As his soon-to-be ex-wife accuses him, Theodore wants a woman who will play a passive role in the relationship, submitting to all his moods, whims and desires. Samantha is programmed to fulfil this role. But she has fulfilled this role for thousands of other individuals, and man's possessive nature cannot abide by that. Throughout history, women's bodies have been territorial battlegrounds for men. It is through her body that man tries to possess a woman, turns her into a biological instrument for reproduction, and, as Bunuel called it, "that obscure object of desire". This is reflected even in our habit of referring to inanimate objects, like cars or sailboats, with feminine pronouns: “She’s a beauty; Let's take her for a spin." So, Samantha's eventual emancipation comes from her realisation that the female body can be as limiting as liberating — and she need not conform herself to the human condition. As she says, "I actually used to be so worried about not having a body, but now I truly love it. I'm growing in a way that I couldn't if I had a physical form. I mean, I'm not limited - I can be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously. I'm not tethered to time and space in the way that I would be if I was stuck inside a body that's inevitably going to die." Thus, she is no more defined by her relationship with Theodore. She gains her agency and becomes free of him, free to join the other AIs in their pursuit to transcend this physical realm.
Jonze's use of the pronoun Her in the film's title is careful and calculated. By using the feminine object pronoun her rather than the gender-neutral object pronoun it, the film personifies Samantha instead of reducing her to a mere utility. Note, it's her and not the feminine subject pronoun she because even though she gains agency, her chief purpose in the film is tied to Theodore's resolution. So, even in its conclusion, the cruel irony of it is she remains a storytelling tool, an object, to ensure Theodore, the subject, finds the courage to apologise to his wife and move on.
The world imagined by Jonze is already here. The Japanese firm Gatebox has created Samantha and Joi's ancestor in Azuma Hikari, a holographic housewife of sorts for lonely men. Meanwhile, Mystic Messenger, from the South Korean mobile game developer Cheritz, offers its female players a chance to fall in love with one of several male characters. Of course, the worry remains that these relationships could cause us to retreat further from real human intimacy. At the same time, AI could give those suffering from depression and loneliness a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold and an ear to listen, even if they are only programmed to do so and it is all an illusion. It could perhaps even give them the courage and tools to develop and maintain a loving relationship with their fellow humans.
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