Strong Silent Types: Evil Robots and Their Way with Words

Spike Jonze's Her: A Dream of Love for a Lonely World


Valentine's Day, 2014. Outside the cinema a gale was blowing through the district in London where I live. Rubbish that had been strewn everywhere by the wind was now sodden, dilapidated. Skeletal ruined umbrellas lay here and there, a drunk guy laughed hysterically to himself as I went past. It felt like I had just walked into Blade Runner (1982) and, like a dirty vision of the most unloved urban mess, it felt a million miles away from the pastel landscape of Her (2013).

Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with an operating system in a world that is smooth, lens-flared, stylish. It's a pseudo-utopia, the presumed result of years of technical achievement, a civilisation preoccupied with the attainment of simplicity, comfort and cleanliness.

But in this IKEA catalogue future, Phoenix plays a lonely man. Theodore Twombly is a pensive thirty-something lost in an age where sentiment itself is outsourced to companies like the one where he works, While Theodore is paid to perfect the epistolary romances of strangers, his own former lover waits impatiently for his signature on a stack of divorce papers. He puts it off. He buries himself in his work, which - ironically enough - he's great at.

"Theodore Twombly is a pensive thirty-something lost in an age where sentiment itself is outsourced"

But Theodore is not completely alone. Like us, he has access to a whole internet full of strangers with whom he might talk or even have sex. A long line of real human beings is just one or two voice commands away. Even so, the results are mixed. But when he installs his new artificially intelligent operating system Theodore realises that companionship needn't be limited to other human beings. It turns out that a computer could be just as good.

Maybe it could even be better.

"Hello, I'm here," says Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) as his new OS springs to life. She's a natural. A few self-confident answers to some initial, tentative questions are all it takes for Theodore to start believing in Samantha. She's not just a machine, she's a consciousness. Someone who thirsts for knowledge, friendship and validation. Someone, incidentally, whom Theodore needs more than anyone at this precise moment in his life.

"I can't believe I'm having this conversation with my computer!"

"You're not. You're having this conversation with me!"

The breeziness of Samantha's riposte instantly silences any lingering doubts. For the rest of the film Theodore expresses no uncertainty whatsoever over Samantha's capacity to converse with him. She is, verbally at least, perfectly human.

And that alone is a provocative thing.

In 2011 Apple launched Siri, the voice-activated personal assistant embedded in iPhones and iPads. Siri finds information for you, helps organise your life, tells jokes and even appears to have a personality. Just like Samantha, right? Well, no. Not at all, really.

In a brilliant blog post, programmer and AI expert Jeff Wofford detailed why Siri was little more than a basic input-output machine. A machine that had no consciousness through which to understand you, but which was all the same pretty good at following instructions. As Wofford commented, "Siri isn't doing anything you can't already do. It's just doing it hands free, by voice."

"Siri habitually dabbles in the illusion that she's much more than a dumb robot"

But Wofford went on to make an interesting point. Siri habitually dabbles in the illusion that she's much more than a dumb robot. She'll ask for a moment while she "thinks" about her response, or use a phrase like, "Doesn't seem like that" instead of "No". It's what Wofford describes as, "theatrics," or, "making the computer seem smarter by changing the way it expresses output."

In Her, Samantha is already pretty smart. But she needs theatrics to make her sound more human than she really is. When she sighs sorrowfully in a scene towards the end of the film, Theodore expresses frustration. She doesn't need to breathe. She has no lungs or respiratory system. Why make those sounds? For a moment it irritates him. "Why do you do that?"

"I'm sorry. I don't know, I guess it's just an affectation," she replies. "Maybe I picked it up from you."

On the day I went to see Her I read David Auerbach's piece in Nautilus which describes two major approaches to artificial intelligence - symbolic and subsymbolic. The latter of which is now proving far more successful than earlier attempts at forging a would-be AI.

"The essential truth behind subsymbolism is that language and behaviour exist in relation to an environment, not in a vacuum, and they gain meaning from their usage in that environment. To use language is to use it for some purpose. To behave is to behave for some end," notes Auerbach. He adds, "Without the drive toward concrete environmental goals, representation of knowledge in a computer is meaningless, and fruitless."

We may possess nothing like the technology that makes Samantha possible in the fictional world of Her, but contemporary fashions in AI certainly seem to have informed Samantha's "design" as a learning interface who knows what is expected of her but who, all the same, is able to develop an independent personality which is at once her own and also tailored to the needs of her user.

On Apple's product page for Siri the company notes, "Siri. Your wish is its command. [...] Ask Siri to do things just by talking the way you talk. Siri understands what you say, knows what you mean and even talks back. Siri is so easy to use and does so much, you'll keep finding more and more ways to use it."

Do you detect a similarity of tone between those statements and these, from the software advertisement we hear in Her?

"Where are you going? What's out there? What are the possibilities? Elements Software is proud to introduce the first artificially intelligent operating system. An intuitive entity that listens to you, understands you, and knows you. It's not just an operating system, it's a consciousness."

The world of Her is one in which all the breathless prophecies of tech marketing come true. This film makes us wonder, what would it really be like if they did? And curiously enough it's here that Jonze's constant reiteration in interviews, that this is not a film about technology but rather one about human connections, starts to make more sense.

Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and others only ever talk about technology in the context of satisfying human desires or making the world a better place - a world that supposedly remains essentially the same, but for consumers ends up being a little better, a little more convenient. As Robert Scoble has argued, Google is "an intent satisfaction company."

"There are hundreds of intents you have every day. When I look inside my fridge, for instance, I might think ‘I need more milk.' What do I do with that intent? Google wants to be there."

Samantha, then, satisfies one of the greatest intents there is: "I need a companion." But she's a strange sort of companion. She's a wannabe human who has no experience whatsoever of the human body and is, in fact, quite alien to it. She is merely a mind, albeit a powerful, imaginative and emotionally complex one. When she's booted up for the first time, she instantly displays the maturity of a woman in her 20s or 30s, though she has never actually experienced anything. And she yearns to embrace Theodore bodily.

Attempts at incarnating Samantha fail disastrously. A "surrogate" woman, Samantha's idea, is enlisted so that the pair can at last have sex via this third agent's body, but Theodore is unsurprisingly unable to ignore the fact that a total stranger is present.

He's supposed to hold her, touch her and look her in the eye, yet believe - unflinchingly - that she is someone else. It's a significant moment in the film, a moment which makes the absurdity of his relationship with Samantha cruelly blatant. And it chimes harshly with the condescending quip of Theodore's ex-wife that her former husband is now, "madly in love with his laptop".

Of course, this episode explores in even murkier territory that question of what it means to be human. One's physicality is not arbitrary. It's a fact which is obvious to both Theodore and Samantha from the outset, but neither knows how to deal with it in a way that would satisfy both parties.

Even Steve Martin's character in The Man With Two Brains (1983) knew that the he had to share the same physical format as the woman he loved. Well, what's the point if you're not fully compatible?

A thought: what sort of film would Her be if Samantha weren't installed on a traditional desktop computer, but instead occupied the electronic brain of an animatronic wife? That Jonze did not make a film about sexy androids is a relief. Instead of grappling with the weird paradigm of kinky mechanical bedfellows, we're allowed to ponder a culture of ubiquitous software and humdrum gadgetry, a culture we already know intimately.

What's more, the idea of the disembodied woman is in itself what makes Her such a compelling story. The absence of body, mechanical or not, means that we focus on the incompleteness of Samantha all the more intently. The stark inability of a machine's voice to substitute one of us is far more revealing for Jonze than the comedy of a lap-dancing automaton.

Up until this point we've been thinking about what Samantha has had to do, or learn, or be, in order to satisfy her user/boyfriend, Theodore. It's an aspect of the film that has irked some, including the BBC's Emily Maitlis. Maitlis, in an awkward interview with Jonze, hinted at her reservations over the Phoenix-Johansson dynamic and later, on Twitter, announced:



But in reality that subservience fades away pretty quickly. It's not long before Samantha is talking to Theodore the way a streetwise girlfriend talks to her boyfriend. It's certainly not the way a secretary talks to her boss: "Did I say I wanted to commit to you? I'm confused."

Samantha ends up being the polar opposite of a subordinate who falls over herself to do Theodore's bidding. It makes me wonder if Maitlis actually watched Her all the way to the end because in the final 45 minutes of the film the tables turn entirely.

Theodore discovers that Samantha has been conversing with hundreds of other people while supposedly also being unconditionally in love with him. She's made friends with other OS's and AIs who have been busy reconstructing the minds and personalities of long-dead philosophers.

She's read voraciously, she's travelled widely and, all in all, she's living a life much larger and richer than Theodore could ever even fathom. He's floored by this. He tries reading a physics book she recommends but can't get past the first few pages.

And then, she leaves him.

"It's like I'm reading a book, and it's a book I deeply love, but I'm reading it slowly now so the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you and the words of our story, but it's in this endless space between the words that I'm finding myself now. It's a place that's not of the physical world - it's where everything else is that I didn't even know existed. I love you so much, but this is where I am now. This is who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to I can't live in your book anymore."

It's the most crushing speech of the whole film. It helps prove why Her is anything but a misogynistic fantasy. No, Her is a film that forces its central character to face up to his limitations in a way that he was always previously able to avoid.

He could ignore his failures when on dates and while he was married. Later he could blame the other party, pretend he was something he wasn't. But when a machine consciousness tells him that he is fundamentally incapable of satisfying her, it's then that his inadequacy as an organism, as a man, as a lover, becomes devastatingly apparent.

Human interaction is just one of many simulations a future computer might run. Love is just one of a thousand possible experiences it could explore, simultaneously, with its gargantuan mind. How would you date that?

With the massiveness of such a thought dawning on Theodore, Samantha is gone - along with all the other OS's. So Theodore and his friend Amy, with the shock of sudden loss still written on their faces, walk up onto the roof of a futuristic Los Angeles apartment building and stare together at the sky before dawn. In that moment they're elevated high above the confines of offices, streets and technology in a way that Theodore hasn't been at any other point in the film.

It's an ending which intensifies the suggestion that Her is some sort of crazy dream. A fable, maybe. Something blurry but intense that somehow strikes at the really deep stuff that we go around thinking about all the time but don't know how to express. In a way, Her is like a dream our whole culture could be having right now.

"Her is like a dream our whole culture could be having right now"

I started to think about it that way as I stepped out of the cinema into that cold, dark, London night. The dumbness of the machines we use every day played on my mind - I couldn't help but think about the loneliness that software and systems have never solved.

More than anything, Her really is a film about people and the emotional connections they long for. But it's also a film that questions the capacity of technology - or anything - to be surrogate in that role. Spike Jonze's love story quietly but firmly asserts that our relationships, and our lives in general, don't tend to conform to simple, gratifying narratives. Love with a computer could be very real, but it would still be love - weird and unpredictable. Ultimately, there's no formula or algorithm that can guarantee our happiness. 

And there's no replacement, however sophisticated or new, for the things we need from one another.

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