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'Her': Why We Could All Fall in Love With Robots

Posted: 01/12/2014 9:46 pm

I was the first to say robots could not make good romantic companions. Lovers? Sure. There's ample proof machines can get that job done. But love -- I want-to-spend-the-foreseeable-future-with-you and will-even-spend-time-with-your-family-just-to-please-you love? Nah. And then Spike Jonze ruined everything.

I was more than ready to hate Her, the movie about a man's romance with an Operating System (OS) that has a personality programmed to evolve. I scoffed at the idea I could take this sad sack and his digital lover seriously. But that quickly changed when I realized the relationship between Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, and his OS, Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is more real than many human-to-human romances.

Samantha thinks about herself rather than just how to serve Theodore and that autonomy is the crucial ingredient for true intimacy. If machines can learn to be independent, we could certainly fall in love with them.

I've always been skeptical about technology's ability to provide real connection; it's simply too convenient. The digital world offers the seductive potential for re-tweets, likes and snapchats anytime I want. It exists to indulge me and asks nothing in return. Sherry Turkle, a psychologist and professor at MIT, wrote that technology offers "the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship." If you think that sounds great, you're not alone.

Thomas Wells, a post-doctoral researcher in Rotterdam, believes robots would make better lovers than humans. He says they could be the perfect worshippers with their "sophisticated algorithms for reading your micro-expressions, their perfect memory, indefatigable attentiveness, and so on." Best of all, they would never have any problems or ambitions of their own, which according to Wells, is the downfall of human lovers.

But constant indulgence is shaky ground for romantic love. We fall in love with people because of their distinct personalities, spilling over with desires, opinions and idiosyncrasies, not with empty vessels that exist to comfort us. You might love technology like a loyal pet or an overbearing mother, but romantic relationships must be between two messy, independent people.

The poet Adrienne Rich wrote: "An honourable human relationship -- that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word 'love' -- is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other. It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation. It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity. It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us."

So far, artificial intelligence isn't that evolved. I asked Siri if I was in love and she responded "I don't understand." But one day she probably will. There's already an AI cube called "EmoSPARK" that uses face tracking and language analysis to read and respond to your mood (Are you OK? How about some music?). There are also sociable robots with facial expressions and tonal variety that use algorithms to learn new behaviour through trial and error and social interactions. Once machines develop distinct enough personalities that they can engage rather than worship us, we will start introducing them to mom and dad.

The beauty of fiction is that it can leap ahead. In Her, Samantha and Theodore seem more like they are in a long-distance relationship than a robotic one. Turkle told me the genius of the movie is that from the minute Samantha speaks, "you are convinced that this robot voice grew up in a body, knows desire, understands the human heart, wants to make love."

In one of their late-night chat sessions, Theodore complains about a bad date and Samantha brings up her own fears. "What's it like to be alive in that room right now?" she asks, and confesses she doesn't know if her feelings are real or not. It's a turning point where Samantha shifts from something that exists to serve Theodore to something with desires independent of him.

Samantha's most sage moment is towards the end of the movie when she says "I'm yours and I'm not yours." Humans, take note. In relationships, we should never exist entirely for another person. It's the tension between feeling intensely intimate with someone yet not being able to control them that keeps two people truly engaged. Otherwise, we take each other for granted.

There's a scene from HBO's Girls where Marni describes how her saccharine boyfriend Charlie's touch has started to feel "like a weird uncle putting his hand on my knee at Thanksgiving." She dumps him, but they reunite once Charlie stops writing sappy songs about her and starts having a life of his own.

Anaïs Nin wrote love begins "where the myth fails. Then we love a human being, not our dream, but a human being with flaws."

Once robots become smart enough to develop their own flaws, there's no reason we couldn't truly love them as well.

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  • NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 17: Actress Scarlett Johansson attends the curtain call for the 'Cat On A Hot Tin Roof' opening night at Richard Rodgers Theatre on January 17, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

  • NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 17: Actress Scarlett Johansson attends the 'Cat On A Hot Tin Roof' Broadway opening night after party at The Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers on January 17, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

  • NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 27: Scarlett Johansson attends 'Cat On A Hot Tin Roof' photo call at Sardi's on November 27, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images)

  • NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 18: Actress Scarlett Johansson attends the 'Hitchcock' New York Premiere at Ziegfeld Theater on November 18, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

  • CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 06: Actress Scarlett Johansson speaks on stage during the final day of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 6, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The DNC, which concludes today, nominated U.S. President Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

  • NEW YORK, NY - MAY 07: Scarlett Johansson attends the 'Schiaparelli And Prada: Impossible Conversations' Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 7, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

  • HOLLYWOOD, CA - MAY 02: Actress Scarlett Johansson and actor Jeremy Renner pose as Scarlett Johansson is honored with a star on The Hollywood Walk Of Fame on May 2, 2012 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

  • HOLLYWOOD, CA - MAY 02: Actress Scarlett Johansson is honored with a star on The Hollywood Walk Of Fame on May 2, 2012 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

  • ROME, ITALY - APRIL 21: (L to R) Actors Tom Hiddlestone, Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo attend 'The Avengers' photocall at De Russie Hotel on April 21, 2012 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Elisabetta Villa/Getty Images)

  • LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 19: Scarlett Johansson attends Marvel Avengers Assemble European Premiere at Vue Westfield on April 19, 2012 in London, England. on April 19, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

  • US actress Scarlett Johansson arrives for the Dolce & Gabbana Spring-Summer 2012 ready-to-wear collection on September 25, 2011 during the Milan's women fashion week. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

  • CULVER CITY, CA - JUNE 04: Actress Scarlett Johansson arrives at Spike TV's 5th annual 2011 'Guys Choice' Awards at Sony Pictures Studios on June 4, 2011 in Culver City, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

  • CULVER CITY, CA - JUNE 04: Actress Scarlett Johansson arrives at Spike TV's 5th annual 2011 'Guys Choice' Awards at Sony Pictures Studios on June 4, 2011 in Culver City, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

  • SANTA MONICA, CA - APRIL 20: Actress Scarlett Johansson arrives at an Evening of Cocktails and Shopping to Benefit the Children's Defense Fund hosted by Coach at Bad Robot on April 20, 2011 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images for Coach)

  • WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 30: Scarlett Johansson attends the 2011 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner at the Washington Hilton on April 30, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kris Connor/Getty Images)

  • LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 27: Actress Scarlett Johansson arrives at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards held at the Kodak Theatre on February 27, 2011 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images)

  • WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 27: Actress Scarlett Johansson arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar party hosted by Graydon Carter held at Sunset Tower on February 27, 2011 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

  • HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 23: Actress Scarlett Johansson attends Vanity Fair Campaign Hollywood 2011 continues with the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas & The Art of Elysium 'Pieces of Heaven Art Auction' held at Siren Studios on February 23, 2011 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Vanity Fair)

  • Actress Scarlett Johansson arrives on the red carpet for the 68th annual Golden Globe awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California January 16, 2011. AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Actress Scarlett Johansson arrives on the red carpet of the 68th annual Golden Globe awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on January 16, 2011. AFP PHOTO/Valerie MACON (Photo credit should read VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images)

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