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Oh My Tech!: Is the science of movie "Her" real?

Published January 16, 2014 1:01 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If you'll indulge me, I'd like to hold off one week writing about the pragmatic solutions of technology to instead ponder the metaphysics of technology.

That's because I'm still thinking about the beautiful new love story, "Her," by director Spike Jonze, which is playing in movie theaters. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely man who falls in love with his computer's operating system, Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. The story itself seems very much inspired by Siri, Apple's own voice-enabled assistant for iPhones and iPads.

On the face of it, the idea of a man falling in love with his computer's voice-activated operating system sounds more like a shallow plot line for a sitcom (actually, it was in an episode of "The Big Bang Theory" when one of the characters falls in love with Siri), but "Her" is instead a wonderful exploration of the nature of falling in love, spawned on in this case by technology and our personal relationship with it. But it also warns us that if we're not careful, technology can consume us and pull us away from what's real.

Moviegoers who see "Her" first may ask "Is this kind of technology possible?" Fortunately, no.

In the movie, Phoenix's character has complete, meaningful conversations with Samantha. He's not just saying, "Find document. Open. Read third paragraph" in a staccato delivery. They talk about their feelings, their desires and what it means to be alive. A computer can't do that, and I doubt it ever will.

That's the stuff of science fiction, of "Star Trek" episodes and Isaac Asimov novels. It's Skynet in "The Terminator" or HAL 9000 in "2001: A Space Odyssey." It's the classic theme of computers becoming so intelligent that they become self-aware, they gain consciousness itself. In the case of "Star Trek," the computer usually ends up taking over the U.S.S. Enterprise. In "2001," HAL begins killing off the astronauts in a feat of self-preservation.

But real computers can never become powerful enough to go beyond having conversational speech. They can't think for themselves. Just to create such a machine — even if we had the programming knowledge to do it — would require a computer big enough to fit in a dozen NSA centers. The best computers can do right now is emulate conversations, and to do that they require a lot of programming help. They can only respond to key words.

Having said that, computers are getting quite good at copying speech patterns. Siri became famous for her sometimes snarky responses to certain questions, such as "Siri, will you marry me?" And she'll respond "I sure have received a lot of marriage proposals recently!" Time magazine wrote about a sophisticated computer program for a robot caller named Samantha West that uses prerecorded responses to simulate a conversation with the person who calls.

That's all computers can do for now and likely for a long time because the one thing programmers can't do is instill a personality and intelligence into computers that allows them to carry on a conversation on their own.

Which brings me to my second point: Let's hope computers never can.

Even though computers have not reached that degree of intelligence, we already have established a personal relationship with mobile devices that is so deep, it's scary.

There's a scene in "Her" where Phoenix's character is talking to Samantha while he's walking through the city, and he notices that many other people are engaged in conversations with their operating systems. It's a poke at what people are doing today. We're so attached to our smartphones, we rarely look up to even say hello.

It's bad enough we have seemingly cut ourselves off from real relationships in favor of one with our phone that it would be sad if we fell in love with a phone or computer as intelligent and charming as Samantha was in the movie.

Many may not think so, but the most meaningful, interesting and intelligent interactions we can have are still with other living, breathing, thinking people, not a pocket-size machine with a computerized voice. We should never forget that.

If you have a tech question for Vince, email him at ohmytech@sltrib.com, and he'll try to answer it for his column in The Salt Lake Tribune or on its website. For an archive of past columns, go to www.sltrib.com/Topics/ohmytech.






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