[Warning: ALL of the spoilers ahead]
Last night I saw the movie Her, which, if you haven’t watched or heard of it, is about a man who falls in love and starts a relationship with his artificially intelligent operating system. The OS, who names herself Samantha, is with Theodore wherever he goes: on his home computer, on his work computer, on his smartphone/futuristic mobile device of some sort that he takes with him as he explores Los Angeles and lies in bed at night.
Knowing only the premise of the film, here were a few things I expected to happen:
- Theodore’s love for his OS would pull him away from “real” human interaction
- He would become unable to date “real” women
- He would have to keep his relationship a secret from friends and family, who would be weirded out if they found out and wouldn’t understand
- The love story would end tragically because: 1) it would turn out that Samantha had just been cruelly playing Theodore for some supposed benefit, 2) the OS would be recalled by its manufacturer due to a “flaw” in which the AI can develop romantic feelings, 3) the feelings would turn out to be “fake” (insofar as they were presumably “real” to begin with), and/or 4) Theodore would be forced to dump Samantha because he would realize that that’s the only way for him to find the life he’s really looking for.
I didn’t expect these plots because of my own beliefs about technology; I expected them because they pervade our culture. The treatment of a human-AI relationship as valid and real isn’t something I would really expect in a mainstream film, given how well technophobia sells. (At this point I not-so-subtly roll my eyes at another film I really liked, 2004’s I, Robot.)
In fact, none of these things happened. In the story of Theodore and Samantha’s relationship, the conflicts that came up and the one that ultimately ended the relationship were not really so different from what might slowly wear down and ultimately destroy a relationship between two humans. Samantha felt that Theodore was too insensitive in pointing out her shortcomings (she doesn’t know what it’s like to lose someone, she has certain vocal affectations that she’s picked up from others but doesn’t need because she doesn’t breathe), Theodore was upset that Samantha was interested others (an interesting parallel with polyamory that I’ll get into in a bit), and, ultimately, Samantha grew out of the relationship and left Theodore (to move on to a different type of existence along with the other AIs; the nature of this wasn’t really elaborated upon, and probably didn’t need to be).
Of course, some of the conflicts were mostly to do with Samantha’s lack of a body. In one scene, she asked Theodore if they could have sex using a surrogate, a woman who was interested in participating in their relationship and who would wear a tiny camera through which Samantha could see. Theodore reluctantly gave it a try but gave up midway through, unable to summon any sexual interest in this strange woman who was pretending to be his non-corporeal girlfriend. The awkwardness of the encounter and the disappointment Samantha and Theodore both felt, however, didn’t seem too far away from what a human couple trying and failing at having a threesome might experience.
Parts of this story felt a little too real to me, as someone who conducts relationships largely with long-distance (albeit human) partners and through technology. Theodore lying in the dark telling Samantha how he would touch her if she were there, talking to her “on the phone” and showing her his city through a camera, trying to date people “in real life” but coming home to talk to her–all of these are things I’ve done. And when Theodore’s ex-wife suggests to him that the reason he’s dating an AI is because he can’t handle the difficulties of dating “real” people, that rang a little true, too. (For an extra dose of feels, try going to see this movie while visiting a long-distance partner.)
There was also an interesting parallel with polyamory when Samantha confessed to Theodore that she has the capability of talking to thousands of humans and OSes at the same time, and has been talking to 8,316 of them while talking to him. She also reveals that she loves 641 others besides him. Theodore sits on the stairs leading to the subway and tries to process this information, and Samantha tries to convince him that her love for others doesn’t at all diminish her love for him; in fact, it only makes it greater. That’s exactly the way I feel about loving multiple people, and I also empathize with Samantha’s frustration in trying to explain that to someone who is feeling jealous and betrayed.
What I really loved was what happened after Theodore started telling people about his relationship with Samantha. Although he was hesitant about telling anyone at first, most of his friends responded positively. His friend Amy, who had made friends with her own OS, was curious and happy for him. His coworker, who invited Theodore on a double date after hearing that he had a girlfriend, barely reacted when Theodore confided that his girlfriend is an OS. They did all go on a date together, Samantha bonded with the coworker’s girlfriend and hung out with the three of them as though there were nothing unusual about the situation. Theodore’s four-year-old goddaughter is curious about why his girlfriend is inside a computer, but otherwise acts like that’s totally normal. The only person who reacted negatively was Theodore’s ex-wife, who was characterized as a little uptight, and even she did not so much delegitimize the idea of dating an operating system as accuse Theodore of avoiding the difficulties of human relationships.
As I mentioned earlier, the film also avoided the trope of becoming obsessed with your gadgets and avoiding human interaction. At the beginning of the movie, Theodore had been broken up with his ex-wife for about a year and had withdrawn from his friends and family. (Early on, there are a few interactions in which friends and family members ask Theodore where he’s been or why he didn’t return a call and so on.) As he gets to know Samantha, however, Theodore starts going out and exploring LA and reconnecting with his friends and family. He even goes on a date for the first time in a while, and it goes well at first but ends badly when his date asks him to commit to something serious, which he’s not ready for. (Oddly, she responds by referring to him as “creepy” and leaving, which I thought was really weird. He didn’t behave inappropriately on the date and she was really into him until the end. I really hope this isn’t meant as an affirmation of the myth that women call men “creepy” for no good reason.) Theodore also finally meets with his ex-wife and signs their divorce papers, a step that he’d been avoiding to her and the divorce attorney’s annoyance for some time.
In short, like any good partner, Samantha helps Theodore grow as a person and experience new things. She also takes the liberty of posing as Theodore and sending some of his best writing to a publisher, who accepts it for publication. The writing in question is Theodore’s letters, which he writes as part of his job. People pay Theodore’s company to compose heartfelt, handwritten letters and send them to friends, partners, and family members for various occasions. While many would consider these letters fake or even deceptive, nobody in Her’s universe treats them that way. In fact, Theodore’s writing is praised by many people, and he’s had some of the same clients for many years. (Contrast this with Tom’s pointless greeting cards in a slightly similar movie, (500) Days of Summer). It’s an interesting parallel with Theodore’s relationship, which many in our world would consider fake, but which Theodore and the people in his life treat with all (or almost all) of the respect they would afford to a relationship between two humans.
It’s not clear how far in the future Her takes place. It does seem, though, that most people in this future world have lost the negative, panicked attitudes many have toward technology today. The film does not even attempt to answer the question of whether or not a relationship between a human and a computer can be real; it seems to consider that question settled (and the answer is yes). Rather, the film is about the trajectory of a relationship, about how partners can change each other, and how, ultimately, relationships can fail even though both partners love each other.
In trying to decide for myself whether the relationship was “real” (and how “real” it was), I knew that it’s impossible to tell what a hypothetical AI means when it says, “I love you.” But it’s almost just as impossible to tell what another human means what they say, “I love you.” The word “love” means different things for different people. For me it means, “I feel a very strong mixture of respect, affection, and warm fuzzies toward you and want to try to be together for as long as that feeling lasts.” For other people it means, “I would sacrifice anything for you and I never want to so much as kiss another person.” For other people it means, “I am certain that I want to spend my life with you and have children together.” Often it’s some combination of those, or others.
Every time I get stuck in my head thinking about whether or not to say “I love you” to someone I’ve been feeling it for, like I am now, I wonder what they’d really hear if I said that, and whether or not it would be anywhere close to the message I was hoping to convey. And if they said it back, would the feeling they’re describing actually feel the same as the one I’m describing? Probably not.
I suppose that to me, the film’s premise is not at all controversial. Of course you can love a computer, if that computer behaves indistinguishably from a person you could love. But what the computer ultimately “feels” is as much a mystery as what your human lover feels, because language can only approximate the experience of seeing through someone else’s eyes.