, , , , , , , , ,

I am not quite sure what the problem is with having for your girlfriend a disembodied voice. If the voice talks affectionately and intelligently, if the voice looks out for you, does things that make you happy, including chatting to your friends and god-daughter, helps you progress professionally, is largely on the same wavelength as you, and, basically, loves you, does it matter that it is not accompanied by a body? What if you even enjoy pretend-sex with it?

There was a documentary I saw once in which they said that the neural firing in the brain is the same whether you perform an action, imagine performing that action, or dream of it. As far as the brain is concerned, all three are equivalent. Furthermore, rodent experiments show that given a choice between stimulating the forebrain (where the “pleasure centre” is located) and eating, rodents will choose the former to the point of exhaustion and death, once again demonstrating that neural firings in the brain trump those in the body. And video games seem to have a similar effect, only on humans. Their built-in reward systems can take over in such a way that people (often kids) forget to eat and drink for long periods of time, leading to exhaustion and death.

Given the primacy of the neural system in determining happiness and a sense of well-being, and given how easily it can be fooled into inhabiting worlds that have no physical reality, the story of the first paragraph sounds perfectly plausible to me. Of course, it is also the story of the movie Her, playing in theatres currently. And unlike the rodents or the video game addicts, the chief protagonist here is not cut off from the physical world in general. Theodore goes to work as usual and interacts with neighbours and friends, albeit in a limited way since his breakup with his wife. It is only in the matter of his girlfriend that he takes the unusual route of going with a disembodied voice emanating from an OS (operating system aka computer).

The premise of this movie reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s famous psychohistorian from the Foundation series, Hari Seldon. (Evidently, it does not take much to remind me of Hari Seldon.) His wife of 28 years is a robot, though this is not known to many. But, more importantly, finding this out does not change his feelings for her. This is different from the disembodied Samantha of Her, because Dors Venabili has a physical form, but insofar as falling in love with a highly intelligent algorithm is concerned, Hari and Theodore both do exactly that.

Her has several themes, one of which is that even with an OS, a relationship can have the same pitfalls as with a human, especially since the OS, in this case, is a learning algorithm that is precisely trying to learn human behaviour. Feelings of jealousy and doubt, a desire for exclusivity in the relationship, and finally, a divergence of paths are all part of this affair.

I enjoyed the movie, even though I found that it dragged a bit, was too talk-heavy, and felt too long, and even though the end felt like an unimaginative cop out. For instance, couldn’t the makers of the OS’s have stopped them from developing so far beyond human abilities that they would abandon the humans? Would the romantic relationships and friendships with the OS’s then be sustainable? Or would their chances of long term success still be about the same as those between humans? What if the OS’s were mutable such that they could always keep a particular human happy, simply by becoming whatever the human needed as they needed it? Or are humans attracted to unhappiness as much as to happiness?

While asking these questions, one does well to remember that at the end of the day, the brain too has a physical existence, and emotions are not disembodied either. Perhaps we will some day evolve to be more brain than anything else and the story of Her may become utterly commonplace then. Or maybe not. Maybe the process of divorcing ourselves from physical reality will change us in fundamental and unforeseeable ways, making Her an impossible scenario. For now though, Her provides us with many questions, few answers and plenty of food for thought.