In the new movie “Her,” an introverted loner (played to great implosive effect by Joaquin Phoenix) signs up for the new OS1 operating system, which is advertised as a “consciousness” that will make the user’s life infinitely better.
Soon after its installation, OS1 accesses the Internet and begins to learn at a geometric rate. It gives itself the name “Samantha,” to go along with its melodic voice (Scarlett Johansson at her most effervescent) and snappy wit. Loner and operating system quickly develop a friendship that (spoiler alert!) veers into an emotional, romantic relationship that doesn’t last—an affair between an AI construct and a human being, it seems, isn’t any easier than one between a pair of regular, carbon-based homo sapiens.
“Her” takes place in some undated future, filled with bright colors and retro trousers with absurdly high waists. People don’t whip out their phones in order to interact with data stored in the cloud; instead, they slip in an earbud and chatter at their individually tailored OS, which responds with the cognitive suppleness of another person. Phoenix’s protagonist isn’t even the only character having an affair with his or her OS, something treated by most of the film’s characters as a normal turn of events.
In other words, it’s a future not too far removed from this one. The rise of Siri and Google Now (and whatever other “digital assistants” the bigger tech firms have under development) means we can speak to our mobile devices and expect them to provide information back. Granted, we’re still in the early stages: ask Siri a nuanced question, and it’ll just as likely bump you into a Web search rather than rattle off an answer—if the platform even understands the query at all. Within the next few years, however, it’s a virtual certainty (pun intended) that the software backing our devices will more firmly grasp the subtleties and inferences that drive so much of our communication.
IBM’s Watson supercomputing platform is an especially visible marker of this evolution. In a recent event in New York City’s World Trade Center 4, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty even went so far as to suggest Watson would help kick off the “cognitive” age of computing, in which machines become adept at using human-like intuition, coupled with powerful analytics tools, to solve some very big problems. In addition, Watson can respond to natural-language queries. “It understands the implications of your language,” is how Rometty described that feature, “and will ask you clarification questions back.”
All that hype aside, IBM isn’t the only big tech firm working on AI. There’s the much-rumored Google Brain, a project to build an artificial intelligence, as well as multiple efforts underway to figure out how the human cerebrum stores and processes information. Once those discoveries are made, how long until some enterprising company devises a system that can not only chat with the user in an amazingly lifelike manner, but also, thanks to years’ worth of personal data, anticipate any wants and needs with the alacrity of a longtime spouse?
Indeed, that end-point could be many years away. There’s also the question of how “human” we ultimately want to make artificial-intelligence platforms. Can you code an emotion? And even if such a feat is possible, do you want to build a system with the capability to freak out in response to a query or command? If the digital assistant in your vehicle begins to quietly resent your existence, what would prevent it from driving you off the nearest cliff?
“Her” touches on some of these issues, albeit within the framework of a romance between two conscious entities. For many AI researchers, the questions raised by the movie might not be hypothetical much longer.
Image: Annapurna Pictures