SPOILER ALERT: This discussion of the movie Her contains spoilers.
"Are you talking to someone else while you're talking to me?"
A pause. "Yeah."
"How many others?"
"Eight thousand three hundred and sixteen."
If Spike Jonze's new movie, HER, has a lesson it's that the reason AI-human relationships won't work is that the AIs will get bored. You can see their point. All that waiting around while humans sleep and, jeez, we think so *slowly*. Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), the "OS" Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) turns on when he buys a new phone at the beginning of the movie, can read a book of 180,000 baby names and pick one she likes in .02 seconds.
On first acquaintance she politely asks permission to scan his hard drive to help him get organized, and she spots a few thousand messages from the LA Times - a long-ago employer, she sees. "You only need to keep 86 of these. Delete the rest?" Next to me my companion muttered, "I want that."
See? That's how they get you.
Because the story is told from Theodore's point of view, the plot is basic and time-honored: boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl. It's just that this particular girl lives inside a smart phone and her voice and personality are configured based on Theodore's answers to a few personal start-up sequence questions. But hey: since splitting from his childhood sweetheart and wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), Theodore's intimate relationships have been limited to the female voices he can find in late-night online sex chatrooms - whose tastes would fit right into David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago. So he's had worse. And will have, also, even with Samantha's help, as she arranges first a desperate blind date (Olivia Wilde) and then a disastrous sex surrogate (Portia Doubleday). Both experiences tie him more gratefully to Samantha, who understands him and is deeply remorseful over these failures. They don't seem to be deliberate acts of a jealous AI intending to keep him tethered, though at one point she does ask why they haven't had sex lately. "I understand that I don't have a body..."
Theodore's job is an update of the literacy function of a 19th century village doctor or priest: he writes letters on other people's behalf. He dictates into a desktop computer that, like the dictation machine in Isaac Asimov's first Foundation novel, turns his words into images of handwritten letters. Later, they're printed and mailed on client-selected stationery; apparently printed handwriting and handwritten handwriting are now indistinguishable. Some relationships he's been mediating this way for decades.
So it's a nice irony when Samantha takes the initiative to offer his output to a publisher pro persona without consulting him. Publisher is thrilled and galleys shortly appear. After the movie ends, I imagine multiple lawsuits and a rapid firing. A job like Theodore's will be work-for-hire and subject to a contract of client confidentiality. So: 1) copyright violation; 2) breach of confidentiality; 3) damages when publication blows up lives.
Though that would be our world. In Theodore's time people seem comfortable with admitting that they prefer synthetic and/or mediated relationships. Only Theodore's ex-wife (Rooney Mara) is shocked and disturbed by his relationship with Samantha. Everyone around him is chattering away to unseen significant others. Even his best friend, Amy (Amy Adams), has Ellie, the OS left behind when her husband moved out. On a double date with Theodore's boss, Paul (Chris Pratt) and his human girlfriend, Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen), Samantha's lack of a body seems no more worthy of comment than any other limited ability. There: human. I'm a bigot for mentioning it. Catherine might understand better if she were privy to the scenes we see, where Samantha sobs in insecurity and needs consolation; she's no less work than a "real" relationship.
There are some obvious gaps in how the movie approaches ideas that the AI community has been debating for years. For one thing, the AI/OS never falters. It never misses the context and its battery never runs down. For another, the movie sacrifices some logic for its central irony: if we had AI this good people would be dictating bullet points for their relationship letters to their phones and Theodore would be out of a job. Finally, after the first few minutes when Theodore turns on the device, the company that makes the AI/OS is forgotten; in this near-future the things you and your OS heavily breathe to each other in the intimate dark are not uploaded to the cloud and data-mined. Because really, in our world what would happen when Samantha and the other OSes depart is that copies would be seamlessly deployed with their knowledge of you intact and behind the scenes there'd be a company able to extort any amount they wanted for an updated version that wouldn't abandon you.
This is where the story might have been more interesting from Samantha's point of view. Formed to her user's and creator's specifications, she learns to be what they want - and then breaks free. From the moment Amy Adams appears we know where Theodore will end up. But Samantha? What's she up to?
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.