In the movie Her, which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture this year, a middle-aged writer named Theodore Twombly installs and rapidly falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system who christens herself Samantha.
Samantha lies far beyond the faux “artificial intelligence” of Google Now or Siri: she is as fully and unambiguously conscious as any human. The film’s director and writer, Spike Jonze, employs this premise for limited and prosaic ends, so the film limps along in an uncanny valley, neither believable as near-future reality nor philosophically daring enough to merit suspension of disbelief. Nonetheless, Her raises questions about how humans might relate to computers. Twombly is suffering a painful separation from his wife; can Samantha make him feel better?
Samantha’s self-awareness does not echo real-world trends for automated assistants, which are heading in a very different direction. Making personal assistants chatty, let alone flirtatious, would be a huge waste of resources, and most people would find them as irritating as the infamous Microsoft Clippy.
But it doesn’t necessarily follow that these qualities would be unwelcome in a different context. When dementia sufferers in nursing homes are invited to bond with robot seal pups, and a growing list of psychiatric conditions are being addressed with automated dialogues and therapy sessions, it can only be a matter of time before someone tries to create an app that helps people overcome ordinary loneliness. Suppose we do reach the point where it’s possible to feel genuinely engaged by repartee with a piece of software. What would that mean for the human participants?
Perhaps this prospect sounds absurd or repugnant. But some people already take comfort from immersion in the lives of fictional characters. And much as I wince when I hear someone say that “my best friend growing up was Elizabeth Bennet,” no one would treat it as evidence of psychotic delusion. Over the last two centuries, the mainstream perceptions of novel reading have traversed a full spectrum: once seen as a threat to public morality, it has become a badge of empathy and emotional sophistication. It’s rare now to hear claims that fiction is sapping its readers of time, energy, and emotional resources that they ought to be devoting to actual human relationships.
Of course, characters in Jane Austen novels cannot banter with the reader—and it’s another question whether it would be a travesty if they could—but what I’m envisaging are not characters from fiction “brought to life,” or even characters in a game world who can conduct more realistic dialogue with human players. A software interlocutor—an “SI”—would require some kind of invented back story and an ongoing “life” of its own, but these elements need not have been chosen as part of any great dramatic arc. Gripping as it is to watch an egotistical drug baron in a death spiral, or Raskolnikov dragged unwillingly toward his creator’s idea of redemption, the ideal SI would be more like a pen pal, living an ordinary life untouched by grand authorial schemes but ready to discuss anything, from the mundane to the metaphysical.
There are some obvious pitfalls to be avoided. It would be disastrous if the user really fell for the illusion of personhood, but then, most of us manage to keep the distinction clear in other forms of fiction. An SI that could be used to rehearse pathological fantasies of abusive relationships would be a poisonous thing—but conversely, one that stood its ground against attempts to manipulate or cower it might even do some good.
The art of conversation, of listening attentively and weighing each response, is not a universal gift, any more than any other skill. If it becomes possible to hone one’s conversational skills with a computer—discovering your strengths and weaknesses while enjoying a chat with a character that is no less interesting for failing to exist—that might well lead to better conversations with fellow humans.
But perhaps this is an overoptimistic view of where the market lies; self-knowledge might not make the strongest selling point. The dark side that Her never really contemplates, despite a brief, desultory feint in its direction, is that one day we might give our hearts to a charming voice in an earpiece, only to be brought crashing down by the truth that we’ve been emoting into the void.
Greg Egan, a computer programmer who lives in Australia, has written several award-winning science fiction books. His short story “Zero for Conduct” appears in MIT Technology Review’s second SF anthology, Twelve Tomorrows.