Review: It's easy to fall in love with Her

The new film by Spike Jones offers a 'surprisingly believable' love story between man and machine

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Can Samantha truly evolve on her own, without user input? By comparison, most computers simply parrot information already fed into them. Even if Google Maps has never been asked to drive from Nome to Indianapolis, for example, it has geographic information about those cities and the formula to extrapolate directions. In a way, this is how humans work, too: parents feed information into children; teachers do the same with students. Beyond that, "the bulk of everyday learning comes from experience," said Katz, citing our five senses, few of which computers can replicate. "The machine doesn't experience the world in the way that humans do; you need to teach it," he said.

Samantha calls
Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with "Samantha" in Her . (Image: Warner Bros Pictures)

And so Theodore does: When he loads Samantha onto his smartphone, she "sees" through its camera and "hears" through its microphone. But for a computer to actually understand what it's seeing and hearing, beyond simply processing it as data, is currently beyond our technological ken. Mobile devices now have so much processing power and memory that it's easy to make them exhibit intelligent-like behavior — but "they have no idea what they're doing," said Katz.

However, it's not impossible for a computer to perform Samantha's trick of identifying funny emails. "This is something that computers today can do very well, using a statistical approach," said Katz. When fed a sufficiently large body of jokes, poetry or stories, a computer can identify trends and even replicate them. Just don't expect computer-written jokes to be that funny.

There is nary a keyboard to be seen in Her, with all email being read, composed and filed using voice input. Although speech to text is "a solved problem," said Katz, it'll be a while before it's the primary input method. (How many people do you see using Siri every day, compared to tapping their iPhones' keyboards?) Accents, background noise, and sentence structures that don't conform to expected inputs can all derail such interactions. Even when Watson competed on Jeopardy, although it could interpret natural language, that input was typed, not spoken.

Even so, just as her commercial advertised, Samantha appears to exhibit not just intelligence, but also consciousness and self-awareness — all of the criteria for sentience. The question remains: Will the development of one naturally invoke the others?

"We are so far from achieving intelligence, I'm happy to focus on just that," Katz said, laughing. "This problem will never be solved to our satisfaction by just computer scientists, or cognitive scientists, or philosophers," but by everyone working together in an interdisciplinary approach.

So while our phones and computers are indeed getting "smarter" better able to anticipate and address our needs and thus deepening our relationship with them, it'll be a long time before that relationship becomes like the one at the center of Her. In the meantime, this film is a surprisingly believable and touching love story -- smarter than our phones will likely ever be.

Ken Gagne is a freelance writer covering Macs, retrocomputing and electronic entertainment. Find him at or on Twitter at @IDGagne.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
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