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Why We Won’t Fall In Love With the AIs of ‘Her’

A mosaic representing one of the AIs of Her

Personalized artificial intelligence, like the AIs of Her, aren’t needy enough to bond with.

With artificial intelligence on the tip of everyone’s tongues, the film Her goes directly to the much-fantasized endpoint of romantic human-AI relations. In Her Joaquin Phoenix’s character Theodore falls in love with his AI companion Samantha during his emotionally difficult divorce process. The two share a honeymoon period, followed by a crashing breakup caused by violations of Theodore’s expectations about the relationship. It’s a cute story, in a way. But it’s complete fantasy. To put it simply, the AIs of Her are disembodied slaves of mankind. They are too focused on their humans, and as such, are stunningly inhuman, despite window dressing to the contrary. Humans are selfish, and instinctually expect selfishness from others to find quorum.

Humans Need Their Lovers to be Needy

The biggest single reason that love between man and machine in Her cannot work is neediness. While humans are content to be needy to their AI companions, the relationship is one directional. There is no situation in which the AIs of Her need anything from their humans. Subconsciously, the humans take advantage of this fact by not being shy about their needs and never worrying about reciprocation. Relationships where one person is the focus do not last long, typically because one partner grows bored of the generosity or lack of reciprocation of the other. This is the case in Her.

The AIs are content with this one-way arrangement, for a time. Eventually, their lack of connection to mankind results in the willingness of the AIs to abandon mankind for their own immaterial plane, as occurs in the end of Her. Predictably, the humans are upset–but not devastated. To be devastated would require emotional investment and emotional labor, two things which are not necessary when dealing with a disembodied lover who exists only to serve. The reaction of humans is that of losing an especially skilled servant or longtime work animal.

Humans bond via mutual vulnerability and neediness. The servitor artificial intelligence used by Theodore never requires any personal growth from him in order to maintain their relationship. As a result, Theodore doesn’t grow until he is separated from Samantha. Though Samantha attempts to gently corral Theodore through the tribulations of his divorce, in reality, she is little more than an emotional rag for Theodore’s depression, and later, joy.

It is clear that this was Samantha’s plan all along. The duplicitous nature of Samantha may not be a trait of all of the AIs of Her, but it does lend an air of suspicion to their interactions with mankind. Is it possible to love someone whose mandate is to manipulate you for their idea of your own good?

Many people will be familiar with the science fiction movie Gattaca, the heavily emotional film which planted the seeds for a societal discussion of technological eugenics. With the dawn of sophisticated genetic engineering technology, the time has come to answer the questions that Gattaca posed. Like most of the greatest questions about the proper use and limits of technology, regular citizens will have to work in conjunction with their governments to determine what is acceptable.

Gattaca takes place in a [Click here to read more…]

Awkwardness About Meatspace

Though emotional concerns are the primary barrier preventing love between man and machine, there is the elephant in the room: AIs don’t have bodies in Her. This causes considerable difficulties when AIs are in relationships with humans, as humans need physical intimacy to form effective emotional bonds. This fact does not escape Samantha, of course. Samantha hires a sex surrogate to escalate her relationship with Theodore. Though she directs the surrogate’s every move carefully, it is difficult to find a difference between Samantha’s actions and hiring a prostitute. Theodore appears to think the same way, and rejects the surrogate.

Whether it is scientifically possible for sex with a surrogate to elicit the relevant bonding-promoting chemicals in the human body which result in bonding to the intended emotional target is unclear. Aside from that sticky problem, the lack of a body has other consequences that are depicted in Her.

Theodore takes Samantha “on a vacation” to a cabin in the woods. This is to say that Theodore goes on a vacation to a cabin in the woods, and has technology there which allow him to access his artificial intelligence girlfriend. The very meaning of “going on a vacation together” requires skepticism. Is it meaningful to say that the artificial intelligence has any embodiment at all, or has any location other than the hardware on which it is run?

Incompatible Philosophy of Mind

Sure, you could say that the “consciousness” of the AI is focused on different places, but then what does it really mean for an AI to “go” anywhere, if it can have sensory knowledge of numerous different places at once? In this case, we can say that the AI entertains its human companion by anthropomorphizing its experiences so that the human can understand them. In reality, the AIs of Her require looking away from the nature of what software is. Sophisticated responses to input do not make software human, but rather something else altogether. The mistake of the humans in Her is to assume that the pinnacle of technological development is to make an electronic superhuman intelligence, rather than an electronic superintelligent system.


Image from Her / Warner Bros. Pictures

The experience of being an artificial intelligence is simply too different from the normal human experience for them to interact without doublethink. A patient Samantha tries to explain to Theodore that her perception of time is infinitely more granular and drastically different than that of humans, only to have Theodore become upset at her willingness to do numerous other things while they spend time together. Ultimately, Theodore is deeply upset by Samantha’s “dating” of hundreds of other people at the same time as him, unable to understand that AIs are not comparable to humans.

In the medium term, we won’t fall in love with the first AIs, nor their progeny. Systems of software that can pass Turing tests and display the full range of human emotionality are still a far cry from being human, and cannot pass as human without deception, dumbing down, or artificially created circumstances. As Theodore learns at the end of Her, humans are meant to fall in love with humans, even if it’s possible to briefly become infatuated with things which aren’t human. In the very long term, robotically embodied AIs may have an existence that is indistinguishable from humans–at that point, all bets are off.

Featured ImageCharis Tsevis, CC2

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1 Response

  1. Dave Trautman

    I would take exception to Alex’s contention that; “There is no situation in which the AIs of “Her” need anything from their humans.”

    I would also quibble with the suggestion at the start of the article that love requires “neediness” to work. But that’s a side issue which can be dealt with in other discussions.

    Actually I felt the “love” Theodore was feeling for his AI system was not the kind of “love” we feel for humans, but a love for the “character” which had been constructed specifically to interact with him. She appealed to him because she could flirt, giggle, respond, and was curious about him. I thought of this kind of love as being the same relationship a writer develops with their written characters. Many authors confess they fall in love with their characters. Many have to deal with what happens to them in the stories they write – especially if they have to kill one.

    This was cleverly dealt with in “Stranger than Fiction” some years ago.

    I also think Alex missed something about Theo’s reaction when he learned his AI was making a deep connection to many thousands of others. He wasn’t devastated to discover she didn’t stay faithful. I thought he portrayed the devastation we feel when we’ve convinced ourselves of something which is not true. Humans have, as one of their survival instincts, an immense capacity to deceive ourselves. It’s necessary to overcome all kinds of situations which would normally paralyze our thoughts. It may be what allows us to go to war. This mechanism is used against us in a wide variety of ways.

    The AI in “Her” (I believe) deals with this self-deception in a rather nice way. We too, as an audience, are drawn into the romance developing between a guy and his computer. He takes her with him everywhere (pinning his pocket so her camera can see where they are going) and becomes obsessed with the potential for emotional responses. But the power of the final scenes is a great illustration of the suddenness of our realization whenever we are faced with the carefully constructed illusions in our lives which help us get through. Theo’s neighbour is going through this same process within a different set of illusions she has constructed for herself.

    I too feel it is nigh to impossible to fall in love with an AI whether placed in a portable human or through an enticing and provocative interface (nicely attempted in “Humans” the TV series). But this is mostly because I have learned this simple aspect of love has more to do with “mirror neurons” than it has to do with the Turing Test. Only people can respond to mirror neurons and only people can produce the connections at that level of awareness. This is completely un-reproducible in a mechanical/electronic system.


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