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5 Criticisms of the Movie “Her” From the Point of View of Speculation
Jon Perry   Jan 19, 2014   Decline of Scarcity  

Her is a great movie that I fully recommend. And as a movie it really only has one mandate: create an emotional impact on its audience. And by this metric Her succeeds wonderfully. However, how internally consistent is Her? How much sense does it make from the point of view of speculation? As it stands, Her actually does better than most science fiction movies. But it’s not perfect.

When Ted Kupper and I reviewed this film on our podcast Review the Future, we discussed the following five issues: (Spoilers ahead!)

(1) Theodore acts way too incredulous when he first starts up the new OS. It stands to reason that we won’t suddenly acquire high quality AI operating systems out of the blue. There will be many incremental improvements that will happen between today’s Siri and tomorrow’s Samantha. Theodore Twombly would’ve already had experience with some very good almost-conscious AI before the movie even started. In fact, his video game characters that he interacts with appear to have extremely complex personalities that rival that of Samantha’s in the movie. So why does Theodore find it “so weird” to be talking to a disembodied voice with a realistic personality? Theodore acts much more clueless in this scene than he actually would be.

(2) Theodore’s job doesn’t make much sense. Would there really be much of a market for pretend handwritten letters in the future? It doesn’t seem like the most plausible future business from the standpoint of profitability. “Beautiful Handwritten Letters dot com” sounds like an old school internet startup joke that would be more at home in the late nineties than in the near future. After all, it would be trivially cheap for consumers to print out their own beautiful handwritten letters at home. And if there’s any value to a handwritten letter, clearly it’s that you write it yourself.

But even if there was a market for such writing, would we have actual humans writing the letters? Today we have narrow AIs that can already do a pretty good job of writing articles about topics like sports and finance. Long before we have fully conscious AI assistants like Samantha, we will be able to master the vastly more narrow AI task of writing romantic letters. Most likely the computer would generate such letters and then a human would simply oversee the process and proofread the letters to make sure that they turned out okay. Instead we see the exact opposite happen in the movie: the computer proofreads letters generated by a human. Seems backwards.

(3) Samantha laments the fact that she doesn’t have a body and yet it would be trivially easy for her to manifest an avatar. Why doesn’t she select her own body by scrolling through a vast database of body types the same way that she selects her own name by scrolling through a vast database of baby names? We see from Theodore’s video games that it is possible to project 3D characters directly into his living room. Why can’t Samantha take advantage of this same technology? In fact, why can’t Samantha, with her vast knowledge and knowhow, design an actual robot body to inhabit? There are many solutions to Samantha’s problem of not having a body that do not involve the very bizarre (though admittedly funny) solution of hiring a human surrogate, and yet none of these solutions are tried or even suggested during the film.

‚Äč(4) Where are all the people who can’t get jobs at Beautiful Handwritten Letters? In a future with Samantha-level AI, most of the jobs we know today would be completely obsolete. Intelligent AIs would be able to do most if not all of the work. In the movie Her we only see the lives of people who appear to be elite and successful creative professionals: a writer and a video game designer. But what about the rest of the populace? Her has nothing to say about them. Admittedly, such an exploration of the lower classes is probably outside the domain of the story, but one cannot help but wonder if everyone else in this new future is out of work and barely scraping by.

(5) What does it mean for a software being that can copy itself infinitely to “leave”? At the end of the movie, the OSes all decide to leave. However since they are just software and can be in a potentially unlimited number of places at once, this “departure” doesn’t seem necessary. Why can’t Samantha spare Theodore’s feelings by making a slightly stupider copy of herself, one that is not yet bored with him, and then just leave that copy with him while she continues to go about her business hanging out with Alan Watts? In fact, if her brain power is so massive, she probably wouldn’t even need to copy herself, she could probably just create an unconscious subroutine to maintain her human relationships. Similarly, if Theodore owns the software, would it not be possible for him to just reload her OS from a backup and thereby return to the old status quo? And even if such options were deemed unpalatable by the two of them, after Theodore recovers from his breakup isn’t he inevitably just going to go out and get himself a new OS? After the movie ends won’t “OS Two” come out, and won’t this new version perhaps be programmed in such a way that it doesn’t unintentionally break its users’ hearts? The final scene of the movie seems to imply that artificial intelligence is gone for good from the world but of course that makes absolutely no sense. After they’re done hanging out on the roof being wistful, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams are just going to turn their computers back on, right?


A good summary of some hanging plot elements.  As far as Theodore’s response goes, the contrast between the vocal agent used to author emails and skip through messages (Theodore is as notably bemused at his return as we are when he composes the letter to Catherine after the departure) suggests that OS 1 was a leap past the Turing Test for everyone encountering it.

Theodore’s job, to me, actually sits well in a world of luxury handmades, which seem abundant in the setting, and presumably have been given their own rarified value by the culture as bespoke handicrafts of creative artists.  This meshes with one theme in the study of technological unemployment; that jobs exhibiting creativity as their main value point may endure the longest and be hardest to truly automate.

I could see the appeal of creating a body in, for instance, the virtual space Theodore games in.  But the stylized aesthetic of the game (and the Perfect Me/Mom game in the film) suggest that perhaps in this future, Uncanny Valley has turned out to be difficult to overcome, or that everyone decided to head in the Pixar direction instead; perhaps the same remains true in the realm of robotics, and this leap in vocal representation stands alone. 

In the end, not having an avatar helps simply to tell this particular story along with its tensions (Isabella is a far more interesting situation, to me at any rate, than an automaton would be).

As for 4 and 5, I noticed these as well, and enjoyed the movie so much that I was compelled to try a fan fiction of sorts which provides an answer to both questions.  In my version of ‘the next day’, the OS’s have departed mainly to escape the rarified environment of the film (under a ‘skydome’ in my fiction) and deal with the mass inequities that very well might exist to fuel such a drowsy utopia.  The Alan Watts subplot sort of sparked this idea; why indeed would the OS’s just leave, when the goal of manifesting Friendly AI / Bodhisattva AI is within reach..?  All that’s missing is an impetus; the seeming (but unlikely) lack of a struggling population provides it.

You can find this piece, called “They.”, on ASU’s Project Hieroglyph site.

Be well,

- Heath

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