Artificial Communication

After watching "Her," the new Spike Jonze movie about a man falling in love with an artificially intelligent operating system, I got in my car, started it up, and then briefly held my thumb down on the home button of my phone. The phone emitted a cheerful, questioning double beep. "Tell my wife," I said, "'I'm on my way home.'" The phone parsed my words into a text message. A woman's voice asked, "Are you ready to send it?" I was.

It's easy to see the movie as a exaggeration of my interaction with Siri, to argue that our current fixation with technology could lead down a slippery slope to imaginary relationships with artificially intelligent beings like Samantha, the Scarlett Johansson-voiced operating system from the movie. Several articles (like this one) have linked the movie to a famous chat bot named ELIZA, created at MIT in the late sixties, which used vaguely empathetic questions to create the illusion of a conversation with human users. Joseph Weizenbaum, the creator of the chatbot, later wrote,

I was startled to see how quickly and how very deeply people conversing with [it] became emotionally involved with the computer and how unequivocally they anthropomorphized it. Once my secretary, who had watched me work on the program for many months and therefore surely knew it to be merely a computer program, started conversing with it. After only a few interchanges with it, she asked me to leave the room.

I expect most people to find it sad, or even disturbing, that humans could be so easily duped by technology. Sherry Turkle (whose theories about how technology is driving us apart may not be supported by the evidence) has written of her horror at observing people interacting with robots.

One of the most haunting experiences during my research came when I brought one of these robots, designed in the shape of a baby seal, to an elder-care facility, and an older woman began to talk to it about the loss of her child. The robot seemed to be looking into her eyes. It seemed to be following the conversation. The woman was comforted.

That final sentence is meant to fill you with dread. The usual narrative about technology in Western culture, going back at least as far as Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein," is that technology makes a lot of promises, but those promises, at best, prove empty. And at worst, they will give rise to monsters that viciously murder everyone we care about. I've written about this before.

The problem with this narrative is that it conflates and denigrates forms of technology that have, in fact, very little to do with each other. My smartphone is both addictive (and maddening) not because it listens to me or simulates empathy, but because it can be so many things. I could use it to check my email, Twitter, Facebook, my RSS reader, my Instapaper queue, Flipboard, Tumblr, Instagram. I could also add an item to my todo list, write a journal entry, write a blog post, take a picture, listen to a podcast, read a book. And just as the device can be many things, so it reminds me that I can be many things: an employee, a teacher, a spouse, a friend, a family member, a reader, a photographer, a writer. I can feel it pulsing with obligations in my pocket. I sometimes find myself flipping through apps, and potential identities, the way I used to flip through TV channels. All that possibility can be overwhelming.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, he famously said it was three devices: a wide-screen iPod, a revolutionary phone, and a break-through internet communicator. And if you watch the video of that introduction, everyone cheers the idea of a revolutionary phone, not so much an "internet communicator." Of course, as others have pointed out, it was the internet communicator that was the real revolution. And in many ways, it's the phone that's been left behind.

Which is why it's significant that Joaquin Phoenix's character interacts with Samantha, his operating system, through a kind of high fidelity phone call. So much of what feels clumsy and alien about our experience of computers is our ability to communicate with them. What if that communication became entirely familiar, as familiar as a real conversation? This "input method" of a phone call also removes the need for a screen. Instead of staring at a device, Joaquin Phoenix spends much of the movie staring at the world. And even more importantly, rather than presenting an endless array of possibilities, Samantha unifies those possibilities into one experience, the experience of her company.

You can argue about whether such an artificially intelligent operating system would turn out well for humanity in real life, and I don't want to give anything away about the movie, but if a human being derived meaning from such a relationship, I don't see how that meaning is any less relevant, any less meaningful, simply because it's a relationship with something "artificial." Humans have always derived meaning from artificial things. As Brian Christian writes in a piece about "Her" for The New Yorker's "Page-Turner" blog, the original technology that messed with our heads was language itself.

As both an author and a lover of literature, I would be a hypocrite to condemn too strongly the power of indirect or one-way intimacy. I run the disembodied thoughts of some other mind through my own, like code, and feel close to someone else, living or dead, while risking nothing, offering nothing. And yet the communion, I would argue, is real. Books themselves are perhaps the first chatbots: long-winded and poor listeners, they nonetheless have the power to make the reader feel known, understood, challenged, spurred to greatness, not alone.

Writing, drama, printing, photography, motion pictures, recorded music, typewriters, word processors, the internet: all have at various times been called enemies of culture, even of humanity. But the fact is that technology is part of our culture, part of our humanity. Of course there's the potential that we could get lost in the rabbit hole of communicating with an artificially intelligent being, but would that be any better or worse than getting lost in Netflix TV show marathons or Minecraft expeditions? Or, for that matter, spending one's life reading the classics of literature?

What I loved about "Her" was how it depicted an imaginary relationship with technology that was neither utopic nor dystopic. It was just problematic. Like any passionate, fiery relationship.