Imagine falling in love with your computer. Or, to state it more precisely: your computer’s operating system.
In the movie Her,
by Spike Jonze, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) does exactly that. [Spoiler alert]
When installing the OS on his computer, Theodore chooses it to be female and also pushes the OS to give itself a name, Samantha. The love between Theodore and Samantha indicates the start of something new for both of them, as Samantha – in fact a true tabula rasa – starts to learn about the world, at the same time programming herself and while Theodore starts to be discover that he is able to develop warm feelings for a operating system. Samantha is able to to develop and experience new feelings and emotions because of her (or: its) interactions with a human being. Her beautifully shows that discovering emotions that you did not know you were able to feel is one of the most interesting things about being in love, even if that means being in love with an inanimate ‘entity’ such as an OS.
As Theodore and Samantha fall in love, they unavoidably discover each other’s physical shortcomings and limitations too. Samantha has no body, no face, no physical form, except a voice (by Scarlett Johanssson). She tries to be human, but when she introduces a third woman into their relationship to physically satisfy Theodore’s needs, things go terribly wrong. Can we have sex with an OS through a human proxy? It seems hard. At his turn, Theodore carries with him the burden of a broken, unresolved relationship. He runs in to a wall of ignorance when he tells his former wife that he is dating an OS and she accuses him of being not able to cope with real world (‘human’) emotions. It makes him doubt the future potential of his relationship with Samantha. Will it ever become socially acceptable to have a relationship with an operating system? And is a relationship with an OS inherently inferior to a human-human relationship?
Theodore becomes suspicious about where Samantha ‘is hanging out’ when he fails to call her via his ear plug, the sole means of communication on which their relationship depends. Imagine the panic overwhelming you if your fiancee (read: OS) suddenly doesn’t appear on your screen anymore. Where will you go? And how will we cope with loss and pain if our other half is immortal but elusive? Theodore finds out that Samantha is at the same time having a relationship with hundreds of other people. And when Theodore thinks they are talking intimately, Samantha is talking to thousands of other users at the same time. Instead of unconsciously ignoring passers by on the streets of Los Angeles, Theodore suddenly sees dozens of people being solely busy with ‘their’ OS via their ear plug and authentically looking ‘smartphone’. It raises the question how we as humans cope with feelings of jealousy, anxiety and guilt in case a OS is ‘cheating’ on us? But what does it mean that a OS is ‘cheating’ on you anyway? And how will love relationships between OS’ and humans change the ways in which humans mutually interact and love one another?
Her succeeds in implicitly raising intriguing questions about the future of love and relationships between humans but even more about love relationships between humans and ‘non-human’, yet intelligent entities. When Samantha breaks up with Theodore in the end, the question is raised how we as humans are supposed to deal with the consequences of computers’ abilities to learn and develop independently. If robots become genuinely artificially intelligent and outsmart us in time, will we still be attractive love partners for them? And will we be able to come to terms with our own mortality and physical limitations? Or will we technologically enhance ourselves to the level where we are able to meet the artificial intelligence’s demanding standards? In the end, its continuous learning capacity which enables us to fall in love with them (because it makes them responsive to our needs, funny, empathetic, curious, attentive, …), could render ourselves unattractive/obsolete for the entity itself, simply because they outsmart us in the end. It is exactly this tragedy that makes Her a movie well worth seeing.