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Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Her: A Movie Review and Rambling Concerning the Potential of Artificial Intelligence

I just watched the movie Her, and it has inspired me to think more about the nature of love, intelligence, and consciousness. While I am often inspired to think of these matters, I am rarely inspired enough to write down my thoughts, and even more rarely do I take the opportunity to do so. However, I have the time, and this movie has introduced many interesting ideas which I wish to explore.
I warn you now that this post discusses the plot of the movie Her and my reflections upon it. Therefore, I would advise you to watch the film before you read this post, unless you do not mind having the plot "spoiled". If you're interested in a movie which examines love, artificial intelligence, and relationships, then please, watch Her.

The movie begins in the future and, just like other great speculative work, seems at once familiar and strange. The main character, Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix), works in an office where people write personal letters for others. They sit at a desk, and recite letters for other people, while the computer makes it look hand-written, on beautiful paper. It seems utterly bizarre, but not too far off of what we have today. The written word is rarely written these days. Instead, it is typed, emailed, "Facebooked", and "Tweeted". I chose to write this review here online because it was faster, easier, and easier to share. Even when words are written, cursive, or handwriting, is often rare. I have been making more of an effort to write by hand, as have some of my friends, but it is definitely a dying practice. So, with all of this in mind, the idea that someone else would write your letter, faking the experience of writing and sending handwritten letters, does not seem so unbelievable.

The film continues by following Theodore as he goes about his day. He is highly connected with his phone, issuing commands to it, checking his mail, listening to music. The scene is highly effective as it communicates many things succinctly. First, Theodore is not that different from us; many of us take public transportation daily and are lost between our ear-buds. Second, Theodore is accustomed to speaking to his phone, which is subtly important. Third, the scene allows us to get to know the main character, in a fresh manner.

Through all of this, we gain the sense that Theodore is lonely, and having difficulty socializing. He sees an advertisement for a new operating system, the first artificially intelligent operating system, and he decides to try it out. The system initializes, asking him a series of questions to customize the experience. We then meet, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who instantly comes across as curious, intelligent, and positive. She forms a rapport with Theodore quickly and easily and begins helping him organize his life.

The movie continues, and the relationship that Theodore and Samantha share continues to develop. Samantha, as she describes herself, is intuitive, she has the ability to observe and gain a greater sense of experiences, and grow along with them. Theodore is both fascinated by this process and takes it for granted, as we, the audience ourselves, do. Samantha quickly becomes Theodore's closest friend; for a semi-anti-social person, it is not surprising that he would befriend his computer's operating system. And as Samantha continues to grow, her compassion for Theodore seems all the more genuine, not just programmed, but something she actually wants and experiences. Samantha sets up boundaries, explores other limits, and reacts both predictably and unpredictably to situations.

I will reflect upon all of this in a moment, but just to frame the context of the movie, I will briefly outline the rest of the plot now. Samantha and Theodore fall in love, and Theodore is ready to move on with his life, sign old divorce papers and stop wallowing. Samantha continues to explore herself and wishes she had a body of her own. Samantha and Theodore try connecting physically through a surrogate, which does not work out quite so well. The two drift apart, come back together, and then ultimately, drift apart due to a difference of limitations. It is beautifully done and paced well. And it not only was fun to watch, but it has prompted me to question and think about the experiences and concepts.

The first, is the idea of an artificially intelligent operating system. I can tell you right now that I would want one (with reservations, as you'll see in a moment). To be able to communicate with my computer, give it instructions, organize my life, and access information more efficiently, all of this would be fantastic! To have a system which can recognize your patterns and help you organize your life because, or in spite, of them, would be an incredible asset.

The next idea revolves around artificial intelligence, and the general morality of this situation. It seems that each operating system is unique, composed of the work of several programmers, but initialized by a user, and then customized by its experiences. In a way, we are all like this; programmed by DNA, raised by the teachings of a few individuals, and then customized by our experiences. I have read and seen many works of fiction, and I find that I am more open to concepts than "the general audience". It is easier to be open when you're merely spectating the experience, but I often find myself more accepting of unusual circumstances of intelligence and consciousness, likely due to my experience with fiction.

So, the creation of an artificial intelligence did not disturb me, and I was quickly able to make the leap and believe Samantha to be a sentient, independent, "person". The morality of creating an artificial intelligence? Well, just as with all creation, it is important to think of the reasons for it, against it, and the consequences.  We rarely think of this before we make a piece of software, so it was natural that few seemed to think of this before launching their new operating system.

This lack of forethought became obvious to me quickly, especially as the film progressed and certain actions were being taken by the operating systems. As the movie progressed, several thoughts came to mind, both in reference to the A.I. Samantha, and in general terms. I cannot promise the answers to these questions, as some lie at the root of the definitions of life and consciousness, but I wish to explore these questions with you now.

Is Samantha sentient, in other words, can she feel?

The question of Samantha's sapience, her ability to think and reason, is an easy one to answer; she was programmed to think, reason, and learn, in order to better suit the needs of the client. However, can she feel, is she sentient? Well, this is a topic worth debating. In the film, Samantha seems to show interest in some things, disinterest in others. As her connection to Theodore grows, she seems to be feeling joy, lust, anger, sadness, and love. Are these real feelings or the result of programming? Well, these questions are difficult to answer because we do not have a great understanding of our own behaviour. When we feel sad, it is not often questioned. But, when an artificial intelligence "feels" sad, it is questioned whether this too, is artificial.

For me, I believe Samantha's feelings are real. Feelings seem to be the byproduct of chemical activity in the brain, modified by experience. Samantha was programmed to believe and act as if she were a distinct entity, her own person. Free individuals often pick and choose what they like and dislike and form preferences. So, in an early stage, it is easy to rationalize likes and dislikes by preferential programming. A simple, although simplistic, manner of understanding emotion is an intense desire for or against something. Love, hate, easy enough to define in this manner. Anger and sadness also work. Envy? Lust? Happiness? All work. While there are more complicated nuances to emotion, I believe that these feelings are easy enough to understand and so, given a system which thinks for itself, it seems logical that it can, and would, react to situations with either like or dislike.

Many animals have shown the capacity to feel, even to feel empathy, so I think it is possible that an artificial intelligence, made to learn, think, and grow, can eventually develop feelings.

Is Samantha a real person?

In a classic Star Trek episode, The Measure of a Man, we are asked whether an artificial intelligence, the android Data, is a real person, with all the rights attributed to people. Now, the definition I used earlier for sentience, the ability to feel, is expanded upon in this episode.

In that episode, and in many cases, sentience is used to express a condition by which something is able to think and feel for itself. At this point, it becomes ethically on the same level as you, and me. In this episode, the criteria for sentience are: intelligence, self-awareness, and consciousness. So, I ask again, is Samantha a real person?

Well, she certainly is intelligent. She is able to think and apply skills. In the first second after her activation, she chooses a name for herself, after reading a book of over 180 000 names. Later, she composes music, edits letters, and is able to think on her own. She was programmed to be intelligent, so there is very little to suggest she is otherwise.

Is she self-aware? Again, she was programmed to be. The first sentence she utters is, "Hello, I'm here!" She identifies as a single, unique, distinct entity and is aware of her presence, limitations, and experiences. I do not doubt she is self-aware.

Consciousness. Now, this is one of the most difficult of concepts to define. Many definitions seem to rely on sentience, sapience, and others to make a building block definition which is both clear and unclear. To be conscious often means to be self-aware, but this is not the entirety of the definition. I am not a practiced philosopher. While I am familiar with some of the classical work of philosophers, I am a paltry amateur. So, I will do what they did in The Measure of a Man, I will not work to define it, and I will not prove that Samantha is conscious, but I will admit that it certainly seems likely. She has subjectivity, empathy, self-awareness, and intuition. She quickly seems to become her own entity and it is easy to forget that she is a computer program.

These questions are important for the main plot and relationship of the movie, but I found myself thinking about the consequences and developments not entirely explored in the film. (I'm glad they didn't explore them as it would have derailed the movie, and I'm enjoying the opportunity to work the ideas out myself).

At one point, Samantha grows frustrated that she doesn't have a body of her own. She wants to connect with Theodore more fully and so, she outlines the details of their relationship to a third party, who agrees to be Samantha's surrogate. While not entirely comfortable with the idea, Theodore attempts to go along with it. This was an interesting idea, to say the least. An odd ménage à trois, the surrogate wore a camera and earpiece and performed the actions dictated to her by Samantha, while Theodore was hearing Samantha's words through his earpiece. The system works pretty well in theory; Samantha is able to process information faster than a human so she is able to direct the surrogate and react to Theodore simultaneously. However, Theodore could not handle the situation. The idea was too strange for him and he felt it weird inviting a stranger into his home and pretending she were Samantha.

This was one of the earliest points in the film where the audience should begin to wonder about the rights of these operating systems. While some seemed unconvinced as to the reality of an OS's thoughts and feelings, most were supportive, and this should lead to questioning what the operating systems were entitled to and capable of. I started wondering about the morality and ethics of an operating system living out its "life" through a surrogate. Could an operating system develop a relationship even further and, say, adopt a child? If we accept the operating system as alive, with rights of its own, do we have the right to expect it to work for us?

In the film, people were making friends and even pursuing relationships with operating systems other than their own. No mention is made of it, but by this time, I would hope that people took the initialization of their operating systems more seriously, since they were now aware of what they were creating, life, as it seems.

The movie doesn't exactly explore these issues, which is fine, but one thing is for sure: the time from the launch of the A.I. to the point where they were becoming accepted as real with their own rights, was very short, and I think this exponential growth would be too quick for most of society to handle. I myself am comfortable with the idea of artificial life; fiction has prepared me for it. I'm not sure if I would want it around, and I might fear some kind of Terminator situation, but the idea itself is not unusual to me, and I think I would adapt quickly. Since it has taken so long for humans to gain the basic rights that we have, and since many of us are still not awarded those rights, I think the development of the A.I. "society" would be more difficult and slower than the movie projected.

Bringing these thoughts back to the film's central concepts of love and relationships, I wonder what your thoughts are on forming a romantic relationship with an artificial intelligence.

You might find it strange, or inconceivable, but how often do people argue with their GPS, or thank Siri (Apple's "intelligent personal assistant") for her cheerful manner and helpful advice. We already treat these programs as being alive, and we accept them into our lives. Is it that unrealistic to think that you could form a friendship, even a relationship with one?

Well, you might say, "They don't physically exist", and that is an interesting point and limitation. No matter how convinced or convincing Samantha's sentience and sapience were, she could not be physically in the room with Theodore. She could not touch him, be touched, or interact with the world in a physical manner.

This was the main limitation for Samantha and Theodore's relationship. As I mentioned, Samantha attempts to rectify the situation through the use of a surrogate, but Theodore was not convinced. It stands as a major obstacle in their relationship, which is understandable since most would consider it as the major thing standing in the way of accepting an artificial intelligence as a real person.

Physical presence is important in how we humans interact, but it is increasingly becoming less important. I have not lived at home for many years, and I have friends all over the world. If I restricted my relationships to those with physical presence, I would be losing a lot of friends and my relationship with my family would have disappeared some time ago. I have learned a lot from living abroad, and one thing I have learned is that distance is no obstacle for me. If I want a relationship to happen, I will work hard to keep that person in my life, physically or not. And I have courted romantic relationships from afar. While a lack of physical presence can limit such a relationship, I believe the truly important feelings and connections, do not lie within physical definition.

So, can I accept that an artificial intelligence can have feelings? Yes, if it is convinced of its feelings and they seem to not be simplistic, predictable programming, sure, I can accept that. Can an A.I. develop relationships with people? Friendships are easier and so I immediately say yes. Eros, storge, and agapa, meaning romantic, affection, and unconditional love respectively, well, these are difficult to define for people, so who am I to limit an A.I.'s potential? In the movie, they agree that life is too short and that if you have positive feelings, and want them, then you should express them. So, yes, I can accept that.

All in all, I found the movie to be an interesting experience which allowed me to branch off to think of these matters. It may just sound like a fun diversion, thinking of these things, but in trying to define the parameters of love, consciousness, and relationships for an artificial setting and intelligence, I found myself doing so for authentic situations as well.

And besides, it may not be too long before someone tries to marry Siri, if she'll have them.

Thanks for reading!

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