Cyborg: (short for cybernetic organism) being with both organic and mechanical parts
2013’s “Her” is a softly-spoken, gently filmed look at artificial intelligence set in a post-Macbook-empire LA. The operating system Samantha (referred to colloquially in the film as an “OS”) is voiced with great care by Scarlett Johansson. This is one of Johansson’s most engrossing performances, rivaled by her turn in 2013’s “Don Jon,” as a fake-fingernailed Jersey princess. Both Samantha and Barbara, Jonhanssen’s character in “Don Jon” are female love interests for their soul-searching, confused male counterparts. The only difference is, Samantha is a computer program designed to facilitate and enhance a human life.
Critics of the film have complained about its adherence to a popular romantic-comedy structure, but I believe “Her” succeeds as a new addition to the cyborg/android canon. Eleanor Robertson asserts incorrectly for The Guardian that the film “fails” to explore the ethics of humans in relationship with computers. Though she asks some valid questions, (“If Samantha is, mentally, an artificial person, what are the conditions of her employment? Does she work for Theodore, or is she owned by the company that built her? If she’s a person, why isn’t it illegal to own her?”) Robertson doesn’t place Samantha in context with characters who have propelled us to ask the same question. Further, she glosses over the film’s wrap-up, in which Samantha peacefully (although sadly) terminates her relationship with Theodore in order to pursue her own development fully, not as an operating system, but as a sentient being capable of different, and in some cases more valuable, methods of exploration and communication.
Examining Samantha in accordance with her cyborg, android and artificially intelligent cousins in film and literature illuminates just how ground-breaking “Her” is, beyond its acclaimed art direction and subtle, effective acting from its leads. Most interesting to monster nerds is the examination of artificially created intelligence in “Her,” especially the culmination of what makes Samantha too different from Theodore, at the climax of the film.
SPOILER ALERT: What makes Samantha ultimately incompatible with Theodore is the breadth and depth of her artificial consciousness. Not bound by a human sense of time or place, she is able to make intellectual and emotional connections with hundreds of humans and other artificially designed consciousnesses all at once. When Theodore begs Samantha to admit how many people she is “in love with,” she is only able to apologize and admit her perspective on the world is changing without his input. (Sidenote: “Her” is one of my favorite films about amicable, inevitable break-ups.) END SPOILERS.
Is this what makes Samantha ultimately inhuman, the fact that she is unable to sustain herself solely on the intellect of one romantic partner? Many of her robotic predecessors are inhuman for the opposite reason: because they are unable to truly connect. In other instances, the downfall of human/cyborg relations has more to do with computerized logic winning over human emotion and causing conflict (in some cases, widespread war and bloodshed between man and machine.) In other cases, artificially intelligent creatures are traumatized, horrified, or even driven to suicidal thoughts once they realize they are not human.
As Mindgem.com puts it, “When the first artificially intelligent creature comes into being and asks “What am I?”, what response could people give that would answer its question? Humanity knows so little about itself that to presume to create a life with no knowledge of what is necessary to nurture it properly causes a great deal of anxiety in many.” Battlestar Galactica is the most successful piece of fiction that examines artificial intelligence in terms of creation and religion. The guttural power in the series’ constant dialogue with religion propels Battlestar from an average sci-fi show into something more transcendent and powerful.
In “Her,” Samantha knows the entire film that she is not human, but she mourns not having a physical body. She is capable of grief, jealousy and lust. In many films depicting cyborgs or androids, regardless of when these beings realize their non-human identities, the emotion they most often experience is rage.
How often have we seen science fiction or speculative films in which a robot counsels a human character on the errors in human nature? Our greed, our fear, our penchant for useless violence, and our illogical attachment to other humans is supposedly our downfall, according to techno-humanoid characters like the android in Alien, the Skynet devices in the Terminator films, the antagonistic computer program in I, Robot and the more evil cylons in Battlestar Galactica. Mindgem.com writes, ” If AI developed the human trait of empathy then it would be in the best interests of both man and machine to find answers to issues such as environmental collapse, the cycle of human violence, poverty, world hunger, disease, old age and a host of other problems that have plagued humanity for thousands of years or more.” The keyword here, of course is empathy. In both Battlestar and Terminator, humanoid robots are created by humans to make human lives easier, but their self-identities grow strong enough to resent their low social status, and the androids rebel. They are creatures of high intelligence, but are devoid of the human empathy we take for granted.
This makes cyborgs like those in Terminator more akin to monstrous ideals of the serial killer or human monster, as they are missing an elemental piece of what makes us human: a respect for human life. Fascinatingly, Mindgem.com writes, “Considering humankind’s own level of empathy toward its fellow humans, [the development of empathy in computers] could be either wonderful or incredibly devastating. There is no way to know what sorts of human-like flaws are intrinsically connected to consciousness in general.” What do we sacrifice by feeling emotions toward other humans? How are these concepts hard-wired into our brains, and what is effected in those same neurological spheres?
Plotlines like those in Terminator seem rooted in a 1980s, and even early ’90s, sense of technology as alien and confounding. What was once disturbing in Orwell’s 1984 (TV screens that never turn off and function as windows for the government to spy on its people) now seems almost common-place in the age of videochats, FaceTime and digital TV. Older generations who enjoyed films like Terminator on a philosophical level are usually the ones making the argument that teenagers’ brains are fried looking at iPhones and iPads all day.
What makes “Her” exciting, in this sense, is its post-millennial stance on technology. The problem that arises in a human-cyborg relationship in “Her” is not a violent, scary one, but a complicated, bittersweet one. Samantha is not harmful because she sees through a digital camera and communicates through Theodore’s headphones, she’s just not meant to stay with Theodore because the way they each experience their lives is too different.
The way Theodore and Samantha eventually split is reminiscent of the most beautiful scene in Blade Runner, in which the dying replicant Roy Batty speaks his last words to Harrison Ford’s protagonist. The film’s final tragedy is not man’s dependence on computers, or even the fact that Roy Batty is dying. The viewer feels crushing sadness because Batty’s consciousness has expanded beyond human measure, and human fear of the replicant has not allowed us to access what he has experienced.
The film’s dialogue:
Roy Batty: I’ve… seen things you people wouldn’t believe… [laugh] Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those… moments… will be lost in time, like [small cough] tears… in… rain. Time… to die…
Dialogue from the film’s original script:
Roy Batty: I’ve known adventures, seen places you people will never see, I’ve been Offworld and back… frontiers! I’ve stood on the back deck of a blinker bound for the Plutition Camps with sweat in my eyes watching the stars fight on the shoulder of Orion…I’ve felt wind in my hair, riding test boats off the black galaxies and seen an attack fleet burn like a match and disappear. I’ve seen it, felt it…!
Samantha’s similar dialogue in “Her”:
Samantha: It’s like I’m reading a book… and it’s a book I deeply love. But I’m reading it slowly now. So the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you… and the words of our story… but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world. It’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much. But this is where I am now. And this who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can’t live your book any more.
Whether cyborgs and androids are frightening monsters or sympathetic, tragic characters depends on the type of “intelligence” a script affords them. When androids are played for comedic relief, they are usually logical, mild-mannered characters who don’t fully understand human connection but are not vehemently opposed to it. Although he is not technically an android, one remembers Spock’s eyebrow being raised as he breathes his accompanying, “…fascinating!” To peaceful androids and cyborgs, humans are simply strange.
Mindgem.com writes “People like to think that they are the only things in the world with higher intelligence and therefore truly unique and in control of their lives. If a machine were to have the same powers of comprehension and creativity and the same notions of progress and self-preservation that humans do, then the human race might just have to settle for being number two.”
But how much of conflict depicted in the cyborg canon is based on power and status? While HAL 9000 attacks the man whose job he is intended to support in 2001: A Space Odyssey, HAL’s qualms are not necessarily based on jealousy or on the humans in the ship abusing their power over him. HAL is just so fixated on the mission at hand that it perceives “human error” as inexcusable. Of course, this reading is brought to question during HAL’s death scene, when it admits to feeling fear at the prospect of dying, and descends into a childhood song to comfort itself in its final moments.
HAL 9000 is perceived as coldly logical, and perhaps sociopathic, but not inherently cruel. On the other side of the coin are characters like the Cybermen in Doctor Who, and the android Ash in 1979’s Alien. These cyborgs have either had their humanity taken from them (in the case of some Cybermen), or they are so far removed from the human experience that they cannot, or will not, experience mercy.
Ash’s character is so beautifully rendered in Alien, with such great care, that his last moments of dialogue with Ripley are left ambiguous to the viewer. We are not sure that Ash can truly feel sympathy for the fate of Ripley and the crew as they face the monster they’ve let on board, as he does not seem conflicted about furthering the ship’s mission in disregard to the safety of its crew. After Ripley removes Ash’s head and reconnects it to communicate with him, we’re treated to this exchange:
Ripley: Ash, can you hear me? Ash?
Ash: [speaking in an electronic, distorted voice] Yes, I can hear you.
Ripley: What was your special order?
Ash: You read it. I thought it was clear.
Ripley: What was it?
Ash: Bring back life form. Priority One. All other priorities rescinded.
Parker: The damn company. What about our lives, you son of a bitch?
Ash: I repeat, all other priorities are rescinded.
After some argument with Ash, the crew decides to deactivate him again.
Other android characters occupy the same general universe as Ash, as presented in the film’s quasi prequel Prometheus. Arguably the least disappointing part of this film was David, another android played hypnotically by Michael Fassbender. In the viral marketing campaign carried out before the film’s release, a short video appeared on YouTube introducing David to a captive audience. The short clip begins with Fassbender’s even-keeled voice asking, “What is it about robots that makes them so robotic?”
After musing on the nature of robots as efficient machines, David appears on screen in a tense close-up. An off-screen narrator asks in a pleasant voice, “David, what makes you sad?” It is here that the clip becomes interesting. As David’s man-made eyes well up, he answers, “War. Poverty. Cruelty. Unnecessary violence.” The music drops out. “I understand human emotions, although I do not feel them myself.” We watch a tear begin to fall from David’s eye, and the music switches on again. The narrative on David’s efficiency continues, and the tension is broken.
For further, and more in depth, reading on the ethics of computer-human monsters and their relations with people, check out explorative works by the Danish Council of Ethics and John Searle’s theory on “weak” and “strong” artificial intelligence. Mindgem.com asserts, “The Turing Test was the first attempt at being able to define and recognize an intelligent mechanical device. It raises a question: Is imitation actually life? Turing would say yes. If a computer can act like a human and fool other humans into believing that it is intelligent, then it is indeed intelligent.”
Is intelligence life? Does life require intelligence?
While doing research for my undergraduate thesis on monsters, I found it difficult to wade through all the cyborg/robot/android theory that’s out there. It’s certainly a well-explored topic in scholarly circles, and popular film touches on its central issues regularly.
As a final note, here are some chilling images of simulated humans (Sims) experiencing glitches in their programming. Talk about monstrous forms…