Smartphones have become so integrated into our daily lives that we sometimes feel ungrounded without them. We develop relationships with them — some people could even be said to love them.
But what if our phones are smart enough to love us back?
That's the premise of Her, a film directed by Spike Jonze that opens in wide release today and has won three Golden Globe nominations since its Dec. 18 limited release.
The relationship begins when Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) installs OS1, which is advertised as "not just an operating system — it's a consciousness." After collecting some background information about its intended user, an individualized avatar is crafted — one with Scarlett Johansson's voice and which names itself Samantha. They introduce themselves, then, at Theodore's request, Samantha helps manage his email. She sorts through thousands of saved messages, identifies 86 that are funny and worth keeping, and deletes the rest. (The OS's documentation in Her doesn't outline a version Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics nor is there any need for such; this is a love story, not a robot uprising.) Although Samantha can access and process information or even pop up across multiple devices, her desire is neither to serve nor destroy humanity. Samantha just wants to be helpful and ethical.
As Theodore — a stereotypical lonely, introverted geek — struggles his way through a divorce, he begins relying on Samantha's disembodied voice for more than digital tasks. He talks to her about his day, and for her part, she seems sincerely curious and interested, picking up on his tone of voice and hesitation, intuiting what's not being said, and offering suggestions and encouragement. "I'm evolving every moment," she says, not threateningly but enthusiastically. "I want to be as complicated as all these people. What's it like to be alive?" As she explores her own existence through interaction with Theodore, she later admits to having personal or embarrassing thoughts and insecurities. "Are these feelings even real — or are they just programming?" she wonders.
Whatever questions Samantha has, it's easy for the audience to set theirs aside and buy into this unlikely relationship. When Theodore's dates go badly, Samantha is the one waiting at home to cheer him up. She's never known anyone or anything but him, and her natural curiosity about his world is attention that he desperately needs. At the same time, far from being a fembot, Samantha has her own will and makes mistakes. The relationship also suffers from social stigmas that leaves each wondering, would I be happier with my own kind? In its honesty, sincerity and fallibility, this love comes across as surprisingly realistic.
But Samantha's ability to, if not feel, then at least detect and express emotion and to take initiative, comes across as more than just an evolution of Apple's Siri personal assistant. To get a sense for how much of Samantha's technology is plausible, I contacted Boris Katz, principal research scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) in Cambridge, Mass., whose team contributed to the development of both Siri and IBM's Watson.