Can you have sex with an operating system?

Computer love is coming soon
Computer love is coming soon

Dave Kellaway reviews Her and dares ask the question that’s on everyone’s mind.

Directed by Spike Jonze. With Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson. 126 mins.  Cert 15.

After seeing this film I asked my tennis partner who I knew had the latest Apple phone if he used Siri the personal assistant ‘voice’ that helps organise your stuff. He whipped it out and said ‘send a text message to Dave that says this Siri thing is really useful’.  I checked later and there it was with my text messages. Magic. At least I suppose for those of us who still think it is amazing to see their Chinese student have a facetime conversation with her mum back home.

In this film the whole Siri personal assistant goes up a few gears.  It is set in a future Los Angeles that is unbelievably clean with happy, smiley people – the black population seem to have disappeared. The main character, Theodore, works in a super-relaxed environment penning letters on a commercial basis for people, sometimes over many years. He lives with similar people in an affluent apartment which is wired up for 3 D fantasy computer games which he seems to play on his own all evening.  He is going through a messy divorce which he discusses in the usual West coast psychobabble (some things don’t change)with one or two other neighbours.

Theodore decides to buy the latest personal assistant operating system. Through his developing relationship with it we have the basic premise of the film. Is it possible for a human to fall in love with an operating system? This is far more than today’s voice activated personal assistants. Due to the inevitable breakthroughs in artificial intelligence this assistant can relate in much more complex ways to all the communications you have either with your ICT tools or with the real world. It is able to ‘see’ through your mobile phone and do countless tasks for you in a split second. Its voice is very natural sounding. As it interacts with you it ‘learns’ more about you and uses its own huge databases to give back a ‘personality’.  I remember the old test for defining the success of AI was when you could not work out if it was a machine or a person you were communicating with – although this test was not face to face obviously.

Now if this enhanced operating system just did some of the things it does early on in the movie then it would be very acceptable – such as whizzing through your hard drive and saving all the stuff worth saving and chucking out the rest.  Although come to think of it even this useful clearing out would require criteria you might not share so this was too good to be true.  But anyway you could imagine some positive uses of such a ‘guardian angel’, for example monitoring sick or vulnerable people and then messaging for instant help or for helping you find lost emails.

However what then happens is that Theodore goes through all the stages of a love affair with his OS – Samantha, played by Johansson: flirting, a sense of exhilaration, actual sex, companionship, suspicion, betrayal and loss. At times you can perhaps believe somebody in such an emotional state might act like this and the director does his best to convince you but he never quite carries it off. It does produce some mildly humorous moments though when Theodore discovers that Samantha has about 500 other human ‘lovers’ simultaneously!  As one of the woman characters points out this sort of arrangement fits quite well within a sexist framework,  where a man can indulge his fantasies with a compliant female while not having to confront a real woman.

If you were charitable you could say the film portrays the limits of such alienated behaviour since Theodore, despite his naiveté and gentleness, is not someone most of us would identify with and you could read the ending as somewhere the artificial relationship helped him arrive at… But ultimately the film lacks pace, tension or real characterisation and even has a trite sentimental ending.  Nevertheless, it is just about worth watching since it is the first film to deal with the exponential development of OS personal assistants and it definitely provokes discussion about the issues raised.

Unfortunately this rather bland film fails to even point us much in that direction. Films like Westworld (1973) dealt with the figurant idea and the Robin Williams vehicle AI dealt with these issues in an interesting way. There have also been better films about male attachments to female dolls –  more recently in the Ryan Gosling film where he falls in love with a blow up doll (Lars and the real girl) or Michel Piccoli in Berlanga’s movie Lifesize back in 1976.

It certainly hints at how in the real world such technical developments would be used far earlier in the pornography industry. You get a sense of this in one of the better scenes where Samantha has hired somebody as a body that will go and have sex with Theodore while hooked up to her voice and eye so the woman acts merely as a body. It does not work out and the contradictions of such an emotional relationship with a software programme are revealed fairly effectively here.

The other more likely use of such technology would be as integrated into bio-robots. The Japanese are already experimenting with robots looking after old infirm people. You can imagine there may be commercial profit in this – Marcuse’s notion of capitalism creating artificial needs would reach a new high (or should that be low?).  In what ways do socialists support the development of robots and AI to shorten the working week and improve production or does an ecological understanding suggest imposing some limits due to the need to reduce energy use and have sustainable growth? Shouldn’t we be revaluing human care work rather than looking for technical solutions?

A big weakness of this sort of Hollywood movie is that even a cursory attempt at locating such technology into an examination of the existing social relations of production is just ignored.  The ownership of such technology and the role of the state and regulation is totally evacuated from the scenario. It would have been possible to show, just like Google or Facebook do today, the use of advertising during the interactions with Theodore.  There was even an opportunity to slip that in once it was clear that Samantha was communicating with thousands of human beings.

What is undeniable is that the boundary between human beings and technology is changing all the time. This is happening in both directions.  Our human bodies will become more hi-tech as body parts are produced and exchanged. Machines and computers are becoming more human-like in the way they are created and developed.  The film has the merit of raising some of these issues in a new way. Sometimes a flawed film can make us think despite its weaknesses.  As with all technology there is tremendous potential for good or evil in both. We also need to develop an analysis and an ethics on such matters; it cannot be left to our governments or those who currently own such technology.

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