The nuts and bolts of love

Her avoids tack­ling the ethics of hu­man-aI ro­mance head on, and misses a chance to re­ally say some­thing about our con­cep­tion of love.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - OBITUARY - By ELEANOR ROBERT­SON

THERE’S a scene early on in Spike Jonze’s new movie, Her, wherein Sa­man­tha, a dis­em­bod­ied, in­tu­itive op­er­at­ing sys­tem, re­veals to her owner, Theodore, that she has read his en­tire e-mail ar­chive. She tells him she knows about his im­pend­ing di­vorce, and gen­tly asks him when he’ll be ready to date again.

Since the premise of the film is a ro­mance be­tween Theodore and Sa­man­tha, it’s easy to in­ter­pret the scene with that end in mind. Imag­ine start­ing a re­la­tion­ship with a vir­tu­ally om­ni­scient su­per­com­puter who had ac­cess to your en­tire dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion ar­chive and the power to com­mu­ni­cate with peo­ple on your be­half us­ing those chan­nels. It sounds about as ro­man­tic as be­ing chased into a tar pit by a swarm of bees.

The film’s aes­thetic is twee and gauzy, prim­ing you to go “aww” in much the same way as a nappy com­mer­cial, and the char­ac­ters com­mu­ni­cate largely through trite emo­tional re­marks that wouldn’t be out of place in one of the teethachingly mawk­ish love let­ters Theodore writes for a liv­ing.

The up­shot of this sickly sweet tone is that the au­di­ence is di­rected to look through a Vase­line-cov­ered lens at the film’s ac­tual plot, which runs along the lines of “emo­tion­ally stunted man-child con­ducts un­eth­i­cal dal­liance with ro­bot house­maid, learns some valu­able lessons about him­self.”

In terms of nar­ra­tive, Sa­man­tha be­ing an op­er­at­ing sys­tem is al­most an af­ter­thought. It’s this is­sue that Jonze elides spec­tac­u­larly, and which de­serves a closer look: what are the eth­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions of in­ter­ac­tions be­tween hu­mans and sen­tient ma­chines like Sa­man­tha?

Theodore is pre­sented as naive and self­ish in his re­la­tion­ship with her, but never is there any sug­ges- tion that his ac­tions may be in­de­fen­si­ble.

Sa­man­tha is heav­ily im­plied to be a Strong AI, a con­scious be­ing that emerges from a non-or­ganic ma­chine. This means that she is morally equiv­a­lent to a hu­man per­son: she has an in­ner life, pref­er­ences and goals.

If Sa­man­tha is, men­tally, an ar­ti­fi­cial per­son, what are the con­di­tions of her em­ploy­ment? Does she work for Theodore, or is she owned by the com­pany that built her? If she’s a per­son, why isn’t it il­le­gal to own her? We’re never in­vited to ex­plore th­ese is­sues in Her. The film presents a world in which this ques­tion­able sta­tus quo is pre­sented as un­prob­lem­atic.

There is cur­rently no such thing as Strong AI, and enough de­bate over its the­o­ret­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity that rep­re­sent­ing it on film is much closer to fan­tasy than sci­ence fic­tion. The dis­tinc­tion be­tween strong and weak ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence is how­ever fre­quently col­lapsed, both in fic­tion and in pub­lic dis­cus­sions about hu­mans and com­put­ers.

David Levy’s book Love And Sex With Ro­bots posits that hu­man­robot re­la­tion­ships will soon be­come reg­u­lar oc­cur­rences; but since we know that Strong AI doesn’t ex­ist, Levy nec­es­sar­ily refers to Weak AI, which is ba­si­cally a very con­vinc­ing ver­sion of Mi­crosoft’s fa­mous char­ac­ter Clippy (the an­i­mated as­sis­tant that pops up in Mi­crosoft Of­fice, patterned af­ter a pa­per­clip).

Clippy asks and an­swers ques­tions, makes fa­cial ex­pres­sions and re­sponds to hu­man in­put, but un­like Sa­man­tha, he has no in­ter­nal life. The im­pli­ca­tions of this kind of hu­man/ro­bot re­la­tion­ship – one be­tween a sen­tient, con­scious hu­man and an ob­ject – are very dif­fer­ent than those be­tween a hu­man and a fan­tas­ti­cal con­scious AI.

Al­though mod­ern de­pic­tions of love tends to fo­cus on the in­di­vid­ual emo­tional ex­pe­ri­ence of in­fat­u­a­tion, we also ac­knowl­edge that a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship re­quires re­cip­ro­cal em­pa­thy.

This is why mar­riage ex­perts are con­stantly telling us all that com­mu­ni­ca­tion is the key to hap­pi­ness: we have no di­rect ac­cess to the in­ner life of our beloved, but it is pre­cisely the ac­knowl­edge­ment and un­der­stand­ing of this in­ner life that is re­quired for a healthy and re­spect­ful re­la­tion­ship.

This is love as a prac­tice, and it’s this that is lack­ing in any re­la­tion­ship be­tween a hu­man and a non­con­scious AI.

Given the ex­is­tence of dat­ing sim­u­la­tions, Levy’s book, and the plethora of pop cul­ture de­pic­tions of robo-ro­mance, it’s vi­tal to as­sess what the po­ten­tial ac­cep­tance of ob­jects as ro­man­tic part­ners says about our con­cep­tion of love.

If your part­ner has no in­ner life, does this mean the em­pa­thy and in­ter-sub­jec­tiv­ity of love is be­ing de­val­ued? Sa­man­tha might be a strong AI, but any film that doesn’t at least ac­knowl­edge the dif­fer­ence be­tween fic­tional ro­bots and the very real pos­si­bil­ity of weak AI so­cial ro­bots is do­ing a dis­ser­vice to a com­plex phe­nom­e­non that will be­come in­creas­ingly im­por­tant as our tech­nol­ogy de­vel­ops into the fu­ture.

A few years ago, the Dan­ish Coun­cil of Ethics re­leased a re­port that tried to en­gage with some of th­ese ques­tions, and I wish I could go back in time and hand Jonze a copy be­fore he sat down to write Her.

One of the Coun­cil’s con­cerns is so­cial ro­bots, which are de­signed to seem as though they have in­ner lives. Th­ese emo­tional sim­u­la­tions en­cour­age us to treat their ar­ti­fi­cial feel­ings as real, po­ten­tially lead­ing to “re­la­tion­ships”, in which hu­mans in­stru­men­talise ob­jects with very con­vinc­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties to real peo­ple.

Films that in­volve ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence should in­vite us to think about those in­tu­itions, rather than us­ing ro­bots as a lazy nov­elty. Her could have been a chance to get stuck in to this stuff, but you’d prob­a­bly get more in­tel­lec­tual depth from watch­ing a few episodes of The Jet­sons. – Guardian News & Me­dia

Miss­ing the point?: Spike Jonze (right) with Joaquin Phoenix on the set of her. The film presents a world in which the ques­tion­able sta­tus quo — that of the own­er­ship of a ‘per­son’, even an ar­ti­fi­cial per­son­al­ity — is pre­sented as un­prob­lem­atic. — Filepic

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