Stephen Wolfram on “Her,” Artificial Intelligence

In the future, your phone will irritate you even more than it does now.

Spike Jonze’s “Her” is billed as science fiction, but a handful of artificial-intelligence experts think the human-like OS at the movie’s center—which is capable of holding a conversation, organizing the protagonist’s email, and even falling in love—is closer to science-fact than some people might think.

Entrepreneurial mathematician Stephen Wolfram, chief designer of the Mathematica software platform and the Wolfram Alpha “computation knowledge engine,” told The Wall Street Journal that building a powerful AI isn’t necessarily difficult with enough engineers and researchers. “The challenging part is, in a sense: Define the meaningful product.”

In essence, he means that, while a talkative digital assistant might be nice, it’s not necessarily the most useful format for a powerful artificial-intelligence platform; people might find more utility in a program that presents answers to questions in a visual way, rather than have a robotic voice chattering at them. “One of the confusing things that I used to believe is that you can make a general purpose AI that is kind of human-like that has a super version of exact human attributes,” he said. “That’s really not the pattern that we’re seeing.“

Other experts think it could be some time before a publicly available artificial intelligence is as flexible with questioning as the one in “Her.” Peter Norvig, a director at Google, pointed out to the Journal that current systems such as Siri and IBM’s Watson are very good at answering questions phrased in the right way, but become confused when trying to parse the meaning behind queries framed in a more unconventional manner. In “Her,” the protagonist played by Joaquin Phoenix can ask his OS about love and relationships and receive an incredibly nuanced reply; ask Siri (or Google Now) the same thing, and the software is likely to punt you to a Web search.

For his part, Wolfram believes that “there is no bright line distinction between what is intelligent and what is merely computational,” and that establishing a bond between a human being and an artificial intelligence system is as simple as anthropomorphizing the latter with cute icons or a sweet voice.

And can a machine actually fall in love with you? Leave those questions for the philosophers.

In “Her,” the human characters accept the presence of hyper-intelligent (and hyper-chatty) OSes as a fact of life. That’s not so far-fetched; indeed, the sight of people talking to their phones and devices is a familiar one to anybody walking down a city street today. But as real-life software becomes more “intelligent,” it might not achieve the anthropomorphic ideal shown in the movie; instead, it might continue to fade into the background, delivering everything we need without us really realizing it.


Image: Annapurna Pictures