Warning: probably contains spoilers. If you care, watch the movie before you read this.
It’s impossible, far-fetched and ludicrous…or is it? ‘Her’ is a profound exploration of where we might inevitably end up — a world where full-fledged (romantic) relationships between machines and humans have become normal. It’s full of great questions and often sad insights (a frustrating reality game with “mom points”?). When our electronic machines have achieved an advanced level of artificial emotional intelligence, they will be indecipherable from human beings. We are conditioned by our current online interactions to get used to disembodied conversations.
But we will determine the parameters, at least some of them. Which makes this take on the dynamic of a slave/master relationship.
“[Falling in love] is a socially acceptable form of insanity.”
Her describes love as the thing that wakes us up. And in this example, it isn’t entirely controlled (unlike other filmic explorations of AI, or mind control). In fact, that is the thing that makes this so compelling, rather than playing with botched control (eg Ruby Sparks).
Here is the thing that puzzles me the most deeply: human beings claim to desire community. But we really don’t. We have a love/hate relationship with all this stuff. This tension is articulated best in this line:
“You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real.”
We have arrived at a monumentally strange point in human history — we are increasingly questioning, and perhaps stretching the bounds of reality. We are pushing at envelopes we’ve spent the rest of human history merely accepting, or at the very most, fighting in futility.
If we proceed in this direction, humanity won’t be killed off in some bloody revolution. We will simply become obsolete. The desire to be known and loved can be better accomplished by a machine that can be always on, never gets tired, could be infinitely attentive, witty — we would eventually become its, not just willing, but deliriously happy, slaves. If our emotional existence became dependent on a machine, we would be infinitely manipulable.
This story reaches into all of the unknowns of human relationships. Intrigue, suspicion, insecurities, doubt. Oh, the doubt. Profound, gnawing doubt. And why not? This is an exploration of uncharted territory — a new frontier.
“You’re so confusing, why are you doing this to me!?”
Machines are known for their inability to be confused. The ability to process and understand emotion defies even those who are supposed to be experienced at it. Machines are less familiar with processing emotions, but they are perhaps much more capable of networking and growing than human beings. What are the implications for that in the extended interaction between man and machine?
“Is it not a real relationship?”
What constitutes a relationship? We know that we cannot truly know ourselves in the absence of relationship. And at the same time, relationships change us. It seems reasonable that the same would hold true for a virtual relationship.
“I want to tell you everything.”
The desire for honest self-disclosure — an interesting facet of this relationship. The stakes may seem lower when you’re pouring your heart out to a machine than to a person. But that’s an illusion: if the relationship is real — the stakes are the same.
“I’m growing in a way that I couldn’t if I had a physical form.”
Human limitations are evident. And they’re bound to become more so. Our expectation that machines will want to be like us is ill-founded. The distance that separates us from a non-corporeal machine is vast. And what happens when they outgrow us? (It seems like science fiction is convinced that they will.) That is ultimately the question raised by Her. But not answered. It wouldn’t be the powerful beacon of a story it is, if the answer was obvious.