It’s not often a film dives into the near future and presents a vision that is both technologically engaging but also fundamentally profound. Minority Report, for all it’s whizbang effects and cool transitions, presented a type of computer interface that anyone having played with Microsoft’s Kinect for more than thirty minutes will realise is a pipe dream. So it was with relief that Spike Jonze settled upon a much more natural channel of communication with his latest film, Her.
The story of Her itself is fairly typical, were one to replace a computer with a living counterpart. Guy breaks up, guy meets girl, guy falls in love with girl; This review isn’t about the content of what was said or shared, but rather what was shown and implied. While it can be read beforehand, it’s always best to see something without prejudice before taking another’s stance on it.
In the near future, interactions with machines take on a form recognisable to us today, only with much finer fidelity. Speech recognition and synthesis are nearly flawless, devices are discreet, wireless and no mention is ever made of battery levels or other such mundane topics.
Which all kind of makes sense. A hundred years ago it was common practice to wind a watch before each day, much in the same way most people dock their phones as soon as they sit down to work. But it stands to reason, given enough time and advancements in material sciences, that the idea of a battery not lasting a month or a year or a lifetime becomes comical.
Devices, the earpieces, notebooks, and computers rely on speech to dictate their actions, alongside more traditional touch. Intent is separated from content, hesitations and pauses used to determine grammar and provide verbal cues. To the layman this looks entirely natural, obviously the idea, but to anyone involved in natural language processing it represents a herculean success.
Nowhere in the film is this aptitude for verbal communication more apparent than during a subway journey. Commuters, packed in together, each talking to their own personal devices as they jostle along. It’s like the resurgence of the 90s business exec, handsfree kit strapped to the side of their head, only now it has become so commonplace, so ubiquitous that each person instinctually filters out the conversations of those around them.
This goes beyond the traditional ignoring of a call, the non-overhearing of a personal conversation. These individuals are dictating their life to a device, for all to hear. Think about it; your grocery list, email replies, weekend plans, music choices. Every little thing you currently tap into your phone, you’re now broadcasting into the world. This is an inevitable change, but one that will cause a much larger social change.
The AI herself, Samantha, is a wholly different beast. While the physical technologies, and even some of the software, is possible if not already expected within the next decade or so, the level of sophistication shown by the AI is at another level entirely. The film, very cleverly, only hints at the machinations of these new personal OSs.
While the male protagonist is learning to live again throughout the film, it is Samantha who is truly learning the whole time. From the very beginning, when she reads thousands of baby books in a fraction of a second to find a suitable label for herself, she is showing that she is leaps and bounds ahead of any human.
Later, at a child’s birthday party, the issue of development is again brought up. A four year old child talking to a four month old computer. At every opportunity Jonze is showing that this machine, not yet even a child, far outstrips our own level of intelligence.
Samantha grows and learns. Like all sentient beings there are missteps and errors along the way. A question she asks of her behaviour, what is programming and what is me, continually torments her. This growth and change very neatly parallels the human part of the film as well.
But it is the finale of the film that provides the most intriguing aspect of the AI. Without divulging too much information about the human relationship, something difficult to do when the purpose of the machine is to appear human, it is clear that what is being depicted is the approach of the Singularity. The moment when an artificial intelligence surpasses the abilities of its human creator, when in an instant it can learn and reason and infer more than all humanity ever has and ever will.
As Samantha herself describes, “the words grow further apart and between them, the infinite cosmos”. No better description of the Singularity, from either human or machine perspective, has so eloquently being put forward. In that moment Jonze describes the most important moment in the future of human civilisation, and manages to make it an aside in a love story.
Her may not win many awards, it’s technological flourishes will go unseen by the masses and it will be remembered as “that film where the guy dates his computer”. But it holds a darker secret than Skynet, a better portrayal of the future than 2001 and a brilliant videogame sidekick.