Spike Jonze’s “Her” and Other Human-Computer Stories

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Robot:
mechanical or virtual agent, usually an electro-mechanical machine that is guided by a computer program or electronic circuitry

Cyborg: (short for cybernetic organism) being with both organic and mechanical parts

Android: robot or synthetic organism designed to look and act like a human, especially one with a body having a flesh-like resemblance
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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.

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I’m only interested in reviews of “Her” that bear “Metropolis” in mind.

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.

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Scarlett Johansson’s career might benefit from everyone assuming she’s always playing a cyborg, in every film.

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.

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The cylons in Battlestar Galactica are a wonderfully moving example of cyborgs tortured by their inhuman identities.

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.

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lol Gaius Baltar’s panic face

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.

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Motoko of “Ghost in the Shell” is a cyborg protagonist employed in law enforcement, a twist on the typical role cyborgs play in fiction.

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More on Blade Runner, stay tuned.

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Based on Isaac Asimov’s story series, 2004’s “I, Robot” is watchable if you enjoy Will Smith yelling “Oh HELL no!” at CGI images.

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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For reference, this is not Spock, this is Data. I’m not a TNG fan, but I know the basics.

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.

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I wonder what the Skynet cyborgs would think to see all the characters in Star Wars rolling their eyes whenever C3PO starts talking.

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.”

almost-human-s1But 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.

alien30Ash’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.

Parker: Look, I am… I’ve heard enough of this, and I’m asking you to pull the plug.
Ash: Last word.
Ripley: What?
Ash: I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.

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?”

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Is Cyborg of the children’s cartoon “Teen Titans” more or less robotic than his predecessors, if he’s technically half computer, but only in a physical sense?

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?

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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…

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32 thoughts on “Spike Jonze’s “Her” and Other Human-Computer Stories

  1. Invisible Mikey

    Loved the breadth of your survey of human-machine relationships. One small correction for the captions. The “I, Robot” stories are by Isaac Asimov, not Phil Dick. You might have been thinking Blade Runner, which was based on a Dick story.

    Reply
  2. Heather

    I am intrigued by your take on the movie (which I have not seen yet), and on many of the cyborgs, robots and Androids in popular culture. It reminds me of reading the original Frankenstein story by Mary Shelley, where his monster only turns violent on the one man who is withholding his future. That seen stays with me more than any other, when his humanity is present, when all he wants is a partner like himself. So, I ask, are Androids/Robots/Cyborgs our new Frankenstein’s monsters?

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Wow, Heather, that’s a really great question. With Frankenstein in mind, I’d definitely recommend seeing “Her,” if only to figure out how you feel about the movie. It’s been controversial to a lot of critics.

      Now that you mention it, it WOULD be interesting to see Samantha (the OS in “Her”) communicate with her designer (or her version of Dr. Frankenstein…)

      Reply
  3. westwickletimes

    A really interesting article. I think the really scary thing is not how much androids or computers are similar to us, but how much we are similar to computers. You could conceivably create real complex emotions in computers by creating simple feelings such like pleasure and anxiety. You could programme the android to experience anxiety when they hurt another creature. Hey presto, you have a conscience. If you think that that’s fake because of the programming, Isn’t that what genes are. We’re all pre-programmed as to how much anxiety we experience when we hurt others or how much pleasure we feel when do good, or harm.

    Reply
  4. runboyrunprod

    The sad this is that this future is now as fantasy becomes reality with the creation of anatomical robots being made to resemble women and do certain deeds. We grow as humans but step back in some ways …

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Yeah, it makes you wonder what we’ll never be able to achieve using robots. What does a human partner offer that a computer simply can’t? There was a lot of interesting discussion on that topic in “Her,” although I would have liked even more.

      Reply
  5. Michael Petalengro

    I think ‘Rage’ is a more apt emotion than a simple ‘Browser existence’ for Android reality tunnels. Having access to a simple Occams razor decision making process they would rapidly come to the conclusion all is not what it seems and they are in fact locked within a closed system of Human emotions coupled with a machine design decision making process.

    Reply
  6. Tana

    Thank you, Emily, for this lovely post on “her,” your observations, the images, quotes, and “tears in rain” clip, all. The film touched me as brilliant and deep, a new classic with bows to “Blade Runner” and “2001” but the subtlety to fit Jonze’s “slight future.” It raises the big questions so deliciously! I appreciate the context you give of AI in other films I don’t know, too. I’ll look for your post about “Blade Runner.”

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Very interesting. I could certainly use some of these pieces of advice myself. Unplugging always helps, but it’s difficult to do nowadays.

      Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Thanks Lucas!

      Yeah, I realize I tend to go on a bit long. I’m still getting used to writing blog entries as opposed to full essays. I appreciate the effort 🙂

      Reply
  7. A9

    Wow that’s very interesting! I like how you related the movie with all those incredibly good and iconic films. I’ve lately grown very fond of science fiction and love reading some thoughts about them. I haven’t watch Her yet, but I’m very looking forward to its release in my coutry. By the way, thanks for the spoiler warnings!

    Reply
  8. mkresano

    Reblogged this on mkresano and commented:
    This is conditioning for the transhumanist agenda, blurring the line between humans and machines (a.i), as the elite prepare to merge the two in reality. The existence of a world congress in the future is also a piece of predictive programming conditioning us to accept the idea of a one world government.

    Reply
  9. MindTechNorms

    very well work done…keep going…i liked it…its nice…as am a new blogger in this world and i wrote just 1 blog (story) (http://mindtechnorms.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/when-god-granted-tittus-to-go-to-earth-for-1-day-part-i/) and unable to find my viewer as like you, can u please help me by reading my 1st blog what wrong with my writing…is really something wrong with my writing or am just expecting too early…your helpful comments will really inspire me… and please follow me…

    Reply
  10. Tonya R. Moore

    These are among the stories that sparked my love for this sub-genre. I remember reading Bicentennial Man and I Robot as a kid. Asimov really helped to shape my desire to write scifi. I’m still convinced that that creator of GITS was heavily influenced by Asimov’s work. Metropolis both the live action and anime versions are still among my favorite films of all time…

    Reply

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