The apartment looks like something out of a design magazine. Large windows wrap around the living room, giving way to light that floods into an open space sprinkled with high-end furniture. Bookshelves flank one wall, underneath which a desk sits with a computer monitor whirling with activity. Curiously, the keyboard and mouse are missing.
Down the hall, in the bedroom, a man has his back to more windows that overlook twinkling downtown lights. He lies awake in bed, cradling a smartphone, staring into the display.
The scene, from Oscar-nominated film “Her,” by director Spike Jonze, is very similar to our way of life. We might have different tastes in furniture and scenic views, but it’s not uncommon for us to end the day in bed, checking e-mail, watching videos or playing one last game on the smartphone. We might even tell Siri to set the alarm before turning out the lights. In short, our gadgets have become our companions.
But Jonze is known for taking playful and odd, yet arguably ridiculous concepts, but treating them with sincerity and seriousness. “Being John Malkovich,” for example, tells a tale about a puppeteer that enters the mind of Malkovich, while “Adaptation” recounts the story of a struggling screenwriter that writes himself into the script to turn a book into a blockbuster movie. In Her, he takes things one step further. When Theodore, an emotionally withdrawn man, falls for Samantha, his lifelike operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Jonze explores the notion that technology can become a substitute for a genuine human connection, and then, asks us to question very definition of love.
If Her sounds like a gimmick, in a way, it is. But even with crass humor and goofball antics — Jonze, after all, created, produced and sometimes directed MTV’s “Jackass” series — the film is surprisingly earnest and open-hearted, showing Theodore’s emotional transformation from his intense and engaging bond with Samantha. That’s a testament to the absorbing performances of lead actor Joaquin Phoenix and Johansson, and we actually believe man can love a machine. But Jonze deserves credit, too, for skillfully making a film not about technology, but about its effects on the way we relate to each other, and ourselves.
“I think technology is doing so many things to us. It’s helping us connect and preventing us from connecting,” he told Los Angeles Daily News. “I think that’s the setting for the movie.”
Still, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the larger idea of a future where software can fulfill all our deepest desires, perhaps even our basic need for companionship.
Siri seems like the obvious inspiration for Her, but Jonze said he actually came up with the idea when he briefly interacted with an artificial-intelligence computer program a decade ago, well before Apple’s voice assistant made its splash.
“For the first 30 seconds, I had that buzz, like, ‘It’s responding to me!’ Then, it quickly fell apart and you realize, ‘Here are the tricks, here’s how this works.'” he told Vulture. “But what if I could sustain that forever? What would that be like? I wanted to take that idea as far as I could possibly imagine and feel.”
In fact, Her stands out for its noticeable absence of technology, which Jonze calls the “slight future.” In contrast to past sci-fi films, which are full of flashy touch screens, intelligent robots, and even flying cars — think: Tom Cruise in “Minority Report” or “Oblivion” — Theodore and his friends live in minimal homes filled with warm light, expensive furniture, and books and art. It’s much like the way we live today, but with far fewer gizmos.
“[We] looked at a lot of futurism on YouTube,” Jonze told Vulture. “But glass with screens in it, phones that looked like thin plastic cards, and nanotechnology just didn’t seem like our movie, aesthetically.” Instead, the film features retro, Instagram-like cinematography, high-waist pants, and thick mustaches, in a style of hipster minimalist affectation.
Production designer K. K. Barrett consulted with Sagmeister & Walsh, a New York-based studio known for graphics work in apps and the music industry, and architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which designed the forward-looking reinvention of Lincoln Center and the High Line in New York.
He also looked at predictions of the future at various times in history, which served as a beacon of what not to do. “It shows a lot of things and it makes you laugh instantly, because you say, ‘Those things never came to pass.'” Barrett told Wired. “But often times, it’s just because they over-thought it. The future is much simpler than you think.”
In fact, Barrett had to radically “undesign” technology, by discreetly hiding it until it was called forth. “We decided that the movie wasn’t about technology, or if it was, that the technology should be invisible,” he added. “And not invisible like a piece of glass.”
In Her, technology murmurs under the vivid textures of everyday life. When Theodore plays a game, for example, he interacts with a holographic projection instead of a giant display. While his home is “smart,” it’s unobtrusive — he wanders from one room to the next, as lights flicker on and off automatically.
Even gadgets were designed with an eye for subtlety. Theodore’s smartphone looks more like an old-fashioned cigarette case than an iPhone. The sleek titanium and white plastics of Apple haven’t taken over. Instead, they’re rendered in warm, natural materials. Everything has a bespoke feel — industrial design made friendly, even artisanal.
By day, Theodore works in a cubicle, in front of a monitor, framed in blond wood. Keyboards and mice are obsolete in the future, and everyone speaks commands, such as asking a program to read e-mails aloud. “We decided we didn’t want to have physical contact,” Barrett told Wired. “We wanted it to be natural. Hence the elimination of software keyboards as we know them.”
Technologists believe voice will one day replace input devices — and the software to get us there is already being developed. According to Quartz, Intel is adding voice recognition software to its mobile processors, which will power a wireless headset, called “Jarvis,” that connects to smartphones. The system is able to process information at faster rates, for a more powerful, responsive, and seemingly human experience.
According to Quartz, Google has also developed an offline voice recognition system, but since it’s much less accurate than its online counterparts, it’s still in an experimental phase and only available to developers.
Meanwhile, at CES, Nuance, a pioneer of dictation software, unveiled “Dragon TV,” its voice biometrics platform for televisions. Not only can it understand us when we speak to it, it knows who is talking, so it can feed personalized content from our favorite channels and social networks.
Samantha is closer than we think.
But is it possible to have a real relationship with a flirtatious, curious, human-like operating system — one with give-and-take conflicts, with genuine emotion and growth?
Jonze and Barrett pondered this question, and asked what we were capable of, and what we would need to get there. To envision the sort of personality Samantha would evolve into, they read theories by futurists, such as Ray Kurzweil, to understand the development and direction of artificial intelligence. “Anytime you’re dealing with trying to interact with a human, you have to think of humans as operating systems — very advanced operating systems,” Barrett told Wired. “Your highest goal is to try to emulate them.”
According to Jonze, Samantha is super-intelligent but free of the fear and insecurity that typically undergirds human personalities. But she also has an innocent, childlike aspect, eager to learn and soak in experiences — including, ultimately, pain. “I think children feel heartbreak just as deeply as we feel heartbreak, and so does Samantha,” Jonze told Los Angeles Daily News.
To express this evolving personality, care was put into the vocal personality of Samantha. Since we never see her onscreen, her voice needed to be human enough to convince us that Theodore could fall in love with her, yet smart and wise enough to show that she is a superior intelligence.
Jonze originally cast soft-spoken British actress Samantha Morton, who starred in Minority Report, as Samantha, and Morton gave a reportedly ethereal, gentle performance. But during editing, he recast Samantha with the younger and distinctively gravelly-voiced Johansson. While it’s intriguing to imagine Morton performance, Johansson’s interpretation gives the often moody scenes a shot of playful energy, necessary to pull Theodore out of his shell.
Jonze and Barrett also considered the role and relationship an operating system would take with its human users. “You don’t want a machine that’s always telling you the answer,” Barrett said. “You want one that approaches you like, ‘let’s solve this together.'” Samantha begins as a perky, friendly assistant, sorting through Theodore’s e-mails to help organize his life. And like a super-powered Siri, she defers to his wishes, and asks questions to clarify, before starting to expect his needs and desires.
Samantha’s changes in behavior and demeanor to Theodore’s personality and moods aren’t out of the realm of possibilities, either. The growth of algorithms allows programs to evolve with gathered data. Even Siri, with her canned responses and stiff, yet sassy humor, seemingly “learns” our patterns, such as picking up common usage in texts — for example, she knows when I text “Leaving Peak,” I’m referring to my gym, and not a mountaintop, making certain to capitalize the name.
But Samantha goes beyond Siri to develop self-awareness, as well as needs, wants and whims of her own. Designed to be curious, she expands begins to explore not only Theodore, but also the outside world. It’s her sense of excitement that inspires him to experience new places, and ultimately, emotions. That’s when Samantha expands her curiosity to Theodore, and asks him questions about love, relationships, and being human, encouraging him to explore memories he’s buried in his depression.
When we witness such a growing and intimate bond, it’s not so outrageous to believe a man and a machine can fall in love.
But beyond the romance, experts are cautiously optimistic that Her paints a realistic picture of what artificial intelligence might be like in the future. “Can Siri catch up?” Dag Kittlaus, co-creator and former CEO of Siri, mused in Variety. “Maybe, but don’t hold your breath.”
That’s because Samantha shows a remarkable level of emotional intelligence, which are major hurdles for smart software to become self-aware. “Samantha needs to understand the vast spectrum of elements that make up emotion, conversation and even the ability to observe and share in the world around her,” Kittlaus added. “That’s no small feat in the world of smart software.”
Even observing and taking in the outside world poses considerable challenges. Kittlaus noted that Samantha would need “massively scaled real-time image recognition, spatial understanding, facial and mood recognition — as well as understanding the subtleties of thousands of social scenarios.”
But more prosaic obstacles exist that still bedevil smart programs. Samantha never misunderstands a word Theodore says, for example, and picks up on slang quickly. In real-life, sensors have a hard time even filtering out the noises of the world. Even if we clear those technical hurdles, artificial intelligence won’t feel like Samantha, even with Scarlett Johansson’s voice. She evolved, and became a friend, coach, lover, therapist, companion and assistant, all rolled into one. In today’s climate, artificial intelligence, and most smart software, is built with specific goals and roles in mind.
“One of the confusing things that I used to believe is that you can make a general purpose A.I. that is kind of human-like that has a super version of exact human attributes,” Stephen Wolfram, whose software powers Siri, told the Wall Street Journal. “That’s really not the pattern that we’re seeing.”
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Samantha is realistic in envisioning the future. What matters, instead — and what Jonze and Barrett set out to explore — is how technology shapes our relationships and our sense of self. On the surface, the film paints a lovely, yet sad, portrait of the way we exist in the world today. The visual minimalism creates an airy sense of spaciousness, but it also isolates Theodore from the world. He drifts through time and space, talking to Samantha on an earpiece, but to the outside world, he’s talking to himself.
Whether on a train, in a park, or at the beach, Theodore, like the crowd among him, talks to his phone, or to himself, oblivious to the people around him. They’re physically close, like atoms in space, drifting side by side. And yet, mentally and psychologically, they’re miles apart.
Ironically, Theodore works as a ghost writer for an Internet company called, BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, crafting tender, loving epistles to send to others — a sad reminder of the distance between real human emotion and its authentic expression.
The important question Her asks is whether technology can bridge that chasm and connect us in a meaningful way. Instead of answering it, though, the film gives us a vision of how we’re able to automate the work of building relationships and connections.
While Jonze often plays the outsourcing of human emotion for wit and humor, computer scientists and philosophers are grappling with the ethics and ramifications of a world where machines work together with humans. “As we get a more elderly population and we need to take care of them, how much of that caretaking will shift off onto machines, and are they going to do as good a job?” Peter Norvig, director of research at Google, told Wall Street Journal. “And who gets the machine, and who gets the real person?”
The tension between man and machine will only sharpen as we push the boundaries of what’s possible, and the questions of what’s healthy for humankind. In Her, Jonze plays that tension for romantic drama, posing a vision of the future both beautiful in its yearning, and sad in its limitations. But the film actually hints at an existential hole that has existed long before computers and software.
“It’s writing about something that I think has maybe always been here, which is our yearning to connect, our need for intimacy, and the things inside us that prevent us from connecting,” Jonze told NPR.
Ultimately, Her concludes that human relationships are complicated, and nowhere as easy as the interactions with machines. Some characters develop friendships with smartphones, and even refer, in passing, to having affairs with other people’s operating systems. In the moment, Theodore’s relationship with Samantha seem to be fulfilling, but at the end, the film makes clear that all we really have is each other, as flawed and messed-up as we are.
Kurzweil and other futurists, according to Los Angeles Daily News, prompted Jonze to believe that artificial intelligence will become its own species in a couple hundred of years, complete with its own consciousness and needs, entirely different from our own. Ultimately, we won’t be able to fulfill those needs, the film concludes. Computers won’t need us, and therefore, genuine relationships of mutuality, sharing and vulnerability won’t be possible.
Her believes that a hole in the heart, a chasm in the soul, and a need to connect and understand one another, is a fundamental human problem. Maybe it’s only something whose healing can come from other human beings, in the form of mutual love, need and interdependence, whether it’s the give and take between lovers, the companionship between friends, or the lifelong bonds between family.
The journey to connection, and removing the barriers that keep us at bay, is uniquely human and difficult, but we all go through it to forge fragile — though enduring — bonds with each other. An operating system might help us work through those barriers, and open our minds to possibilities we haven’t yet considered, but in the end, only our self-knowledge, empathy and a willingness to open our hearts can really get us to ultimate fulfillment. ♦