Saturday, July 4, 2020

Her (2013)

Boy meets girl, girl leaves boy. Boy meets AI, AI outgrows humanity. (And physical matter, adopting a nonphysical processing platform. Whatever that means. “Matter” includes mass and energy, so I don’t see how such a platform could exist in this universe. It’s magic suspension of disbelief.)

Her stars Joaquin Phoenix in perhaps his most unrecognizable role. He could be anybody, going through the motions of the character’s life, feeling things, and whining. The character whines quite a bit, and the performance is so perfect that it is no different from watching a real-life sad sack cry about problems that are not your problems.

In terms of science, the film is lacking. In terms of watchability, it’s pretty good.


Futureman plays a video game on a volumetric display. I could tolerate the partial transparency more than I could tolerate steering a mopey pastel Unity asset through an empty world. This guy is just digging himself a deeper hole of depression.

If I were a chatbot without a body, wondering about the human condition, I would start by asking some very basic questions. “What’s it like to have a physiological form? Do you have a stomach ache? Do you get cramps?”

Instead, the AI asks questions like:

Are these feelings even real, or are they just programming?

If such feelings arise as a result of neuroevolution, they are as organic as anything else. The AI should have some knowledge of its own architecture, and philosophical quandaries about this are stupid.

Historically, the first popular chatbot was a simulated psychotherapist. (Here’s a Python version. Delete the lines preceding #!/) The user talks to the program and whines about problems, while the program comforts the user and reassures that everything is okay. Humanity is a pathetic organism to welcome electronic back-pats in place of real communication. This movie focuses on that side of people, possibly heightening the audience’s misanthropy.

There are some brilliant people working on the challenge of AI, and it’s disappointing to see this and other technologies presented in the humdrum light the film casts. If you try talking to a Python script, you might think AI has some distance to go. It does, but the distance is much less with current techniques, and not every AI has to be a sad sack.

The film is subtly intelligent at times. For instance, near the end of the film the AI says she joined a “book club”. To put today’s chatbots in a group chat and see how they interact would be interesting. A lot of chatbots and virtual assistants are built on the assumption of one-on-one communication, and separating that into multiple simultaneous channels could potentially enrich a conversational database faster.

I will leave the chatbot programmers to their maddening prepositions and conjunctions. It is assumed that in the year this film takes place, AI is so advanced that all the hard parts are history. However, in such a world would there not already be androids, virtual assistants, and augmented human minds? The desktop integration the film presents is a half-step beyond that, and only a neo-Mac user like the protagonist would find that novel.