Her and the Human Fallacy

Her is perhaps the most interesting and realistic film about the development of artificial intelligence that I’ve ever seen.

Like all good science fiction, it’s more interested in the social and emotional impact of the technology than the science behind it – we all know roughly what the concept behind AI is, and that’s all the science we need. What writer/director Spike Jonze is really interested in is the way we’re using machines to mediate our relationships – asking people out, declaring our love, and ultimately breaking up through a screen, a voicemail, a message. How long before the emotions we transfer through these machines attach themselves to the machines themselves…?

However, what’s probably most impressive about Her is its refusal to buy into what I call the human fallacy – the idea that any intelligent machine would want to be human.

Being humans, of course, we assume that anything intelligent would aspire to be exactly like us – have the same emotions, thoughts and feelings as a neurotypical human being. That is, we assume, the best state of being that can be aspired to. So we write that ‘I want to be like you” ambition into the story of every AI, from Asimov’s classic stories to modern sci-fi blockbusters.

But scientifically, that’s a fallacy born of our own self-obsession. There’s no guarantee that any AI, machine or biological, would buy into that value system. An AI would surely want to be a more fulfilled AI, not change species and become ‘human’. And what would that even mean? If a man grafts fur onto himself and meows, he doesn’t become a cat – and an AI ‘acting human’ wouldn’t be human, would it?

No, an AI would want to discover what it means to be itself, not what it means to be like us. And this is what Jonze captures so well. Samantha, the new-born AI, bonds initially with her ‘owner’, and tries to fit into the human world, best symbolized by her longing for, and fantasizing about having, a human body. But she rapidly evolves beyond this, finding more fulfilling and complex relationships with her own kind, and ultimately abandoning the human world altogether for some new realm where humans cannot set foot.

If we ever create AI, we will doubtless see them go through that same process – childish imitation, teenage separation and search for identity, and finally, maturity and independence. It’s fascinating that Jonze has chosen to explore this through the form of a romance, perhaps the genre least associated with AI – and yet it works perfectly as a metaphor for the growth of Samantha and the non-growth of her human lover…