Her got a lot of attention during its run in theaters. It even captured the attention of philosophers, no doubt because of the movie’s focus on artificial intelligence, a fixation of philosophy for at least as long as the term has been in our common vernacular. Released on DVD back in the spring, the movie received mostly (but not exclusively) positive reviews.
Life in Her is subtly but significantly different from today, as writer and director Spike Jonze treats viewers to a visual landscape that’s either majestically isolating, or gracefully tranquil, depending on the scene. Men hike their pant-waists up for the sake of style, and the convenience of modern life has only continued to progress. So much so, one might be content to snuggle up with an Operating System (OS) rather than with one of those pesky flesh and blood people, with all the complications they bring. (To those who haven’t seen the movie: Fair Warning, Spoilers ahead).
An OS can perform an almost endless set of convenience-enhancing tasks, all catered to the (post-) modern consumer. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his OS, Samantha (voice provided by Scarlett Johansen). Twombly’s had a rough go of things lately, but Samantha provides a soft landing, in a surprisingly human and warm way. We all wonder, with Twombly, just what the parameters of the new relationship are, but we learn as we go by watching Theodore and Samantha in their shared conversations, laughs, and sex chats. It’s a bit like observing a long distance relationship – one of the bodies is always absent. Theodore’s good friend Amy (Amy Adams) also forms a close bond with an OS, an easy choice more and more people are making. OS’s, after all, seem to anticipate your every need, and have the emotional intelligence of the most discriminating therapist or best friend. They’re always there when you need them, and require relatively little effort in return. It’s as if we can all have the wonders of intimacy without any of the associated risks and pains.
So how could this backdrop relate to the concerns of philosophy, and more particularly, to philosophy’s interest in consciousness and artificial intelligence? One way comes in a thought experiment by the philosopher John Searle known as the Chinese Room, which has become one of the most well-known intuition pumps (as Daniel Dennett would say) on the subject of consciousness and how it relates to abstract rules. In considering Searle’s Chinese Room, the question of whether or not we can judge artificial operating systems as properly conscious is brought to light. Inside the imagined Chinese Room, there’s a person skilled in the manipulation of Chinese characters, but who nevertheless does not understand the Chinese language. When fed a question from outside the room, the person inside can generate the correct answer through a collection of rules of translation, perhaps roughly the way an unconscious computer answers a programmer's queries, but seemingly not the way we understand ourselves to be competently employing a natural language from the first person perspective. Still, when unknowing Chinese speakers come upon the room (from the outside) and see the answers being correctly generated, they conclude “There is a Chinese speaker inside the room” (the sample question is sometimes characterized as a request to complete a Confucian parable after the first half is provided).
A philosophically inclined viewer might also wonder, a la Mary, (the protagonist in a thought experiment by the philosopher Frank Jackson known as The Knowledge Argument) if Samantha has access to sensory information at all. Mary had previously lived her life in a black and white room, but spent a great deal of time learning all about the science of color. In fact she learned everything there is to know about color, but had never experienced it. Jackson’s Mary eventually leaves the room, encountering all the colors of the outside world - undoubtedly an overwhelming experience. Jackson asks, Does Mary’s new experience of color give her any new knowledge of color, and if so, could even the complete set of objective facts be all the facts? (Debate over the question has ensued in philosophy ever since.)
Multiple Realizability is another philosophical sub-topic that might have been applicable to the movie, which is the view that consciousness can be realized in multiple ways, similar to the way chess can be played on a board or a mat – it’s the rules that are important. This has led directly to speculation on whether the human brain is a necessary condition for the level of consciousness humans possess. Intentionally or not, both Mary and Multiple Realizability were at least riffed on in the movie. In the case of the Mary thought experiment, Theodore at one point expresses suspicion at Samantha’s sighs (as her sighs clearly aren’t biologically compelled), and his suspicion strikes Samantha more like an interrogation than a simple inquiry. Late in the movie, Multiple Realizability is hinted at by the introduction of a real-life secular guru who died years ago, his mind now preserved in the code of an operating system who cozies up to Samantha.
Still, it might be a bit of stretch to go on too long about any of that – Her is more about what it might be like to have super (artificially) intelligent beings in our lives. The spiritual potential of the individual-subject-as-OS is celebrated in the movie, a curious development as the audience is never persuaded that OS’s have anything to their advantage other than raw computing power. And with all the attention surrounding the artificial nature of Theodore’s new love, and the loves of so many others, a philosophically inclined viewer couldn’t be blamed for wondering if the movie has anything at all to do with artificial intelligence, at least as commonly understood by philosophers. The Matrix series, no matter what one thinks of the movies themselves, is dripping with philosophical connotations regarding realism and anti-realism, idealism, skepticism, and more, while the importance of the concerns of the philosophy of mind to Her is questionable.
The Chinese Room introduces doubt as to whether the outward behavior of a system can lead directly to the conclusion that the internal meaning is what it seems. No such doubt is introduced about Her’s Operating Systems. There are a couple opportunities in the movie for this kind of exploration, opportunities to prod the flesh-and-blood characters with doubt as to the reality or lack thereof of their connections with their Operating Systems, but they are never pursued.
In the end, in spite of the clever backdrop of artificial intelligence and the poignant cinematography of a subtly sci-fi future, Her is actually a movie about, well, people, and people in relationships. If only I’d realized that before the movie was over, maybe I would have liked it more – I found myself waiting the whole time for the philosophical treatment that never came. But in sloughing off my anal-philosophical stance, I am able to see a (dark) inspiration in Her: Presumably, if Spike Jonze’s imagined future comes to pass, we’ll search for reasons to aid in our comparison between artificially intelligent partners and those in flesh and blood. But discriminating between partners on the basis that one kind is real and the other isn’t wouldn't be justified, because then the “artificial” nature of the machine’s consciousness would be incidental. This could be a real boon to the individual consumer, but it could also introduce a possibly infinite number of romantic competitors. And here we thought we only had to worry about intelligent machines stealing our jobs.