Intimate AI: Musings on Artificial Intelligence, Society, Desire, and Love on the Big Screen

Artificial intelligence (AI) has seen resurgence in cinema in recent years. Perhaps it’s because we now use technologies in our everyday lives whose illusions of AI would have dazzled and frightened back in when a film such as 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968. 

Technologies used in everyday life such as Apple’s Siri rekindle old questions about AI and spark new ones (and new jealousies)

Recent films such as the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game and the speculative fiction love story Her address central figures and questions related to AI at the same time as the stirrings of desire, love, lust, and intimacy. As a research of AI and expression in a comparative media studies department I have been asked for my thoughts on these themes in recent months. Here I share some of these musings, sparked initially when the reporter Solvej Shou requested an interview with me for the


(Warner Bros.)
A man falls in love with his operating system name Samantha in the 2013 film Her.

Solvej Shou (SS): What does "Her" say about how current and future technology can do so much to connect us, but also isolate us? The movie's L.A. is stylized but very real feeling, filled with people in tall, sky-skimming buildings but also awash in isolating modern technology: apartment wall-sized 3D video games, small sleek cigarette case sized mobile computer devices and tiny ear pieces, and a personalized computer operating system AI whose humanity is embedded in her voice and ability to emote and interact, but exists outside of a physical human body and environment.

Fox Harrell (FH): The movie’s premise reminds us that human power, human agency, is always about real people and human connections. It also reminds us of the power of the human imagination, capable of creating beautiful fictions and technologies capable of helping to enslave or to liberate us. All technologies have values built into them, technologies such as shown in “Her” reveal some of the values of their creators and societies that they are in.

SS: What do movies such as "Her" say about the ways we as a society have come to separate mind, body and heart to an unprecedented degree? Samantha has the warm voice of Scarlett Johansson. Does that show there really is a human element to our technology, or should or will be in the future? That we need a human element on some level when it comes to relating to electronic programs, creations or systems? Much was made recently when a voiceover artist in Atlanta claimed she was the voice basis for iPhone's Siri.

FH: The original “good old-fashioned” form of AI (that’s what we call it in the field) has always had an element of mind/body separation. The idea was that intelligence could be replicated on a machine because the computer was like a disembodied mind. The truth is that AI has always had a human element. One vision of AI holds that when we can create a computer that can pass a test in which it fools us into thinking that it is human then we’ll have achieved artificial intelligence. This is often called the Turing Test, named after the great British pioneer in computer science Alan Turing. But, as I remind readers in my book Phantasmal Media, the original version of the test Turing published in 1950 was quite different. Then called “The Imitation Game,” Turing’s test was whether a computer could successfully play the role of a man posing as a woman and an interrogator would have to guess which is the computer. Turing himself may have even had a heartfelt reason for this formulation, he was persecuted and punished for his own vexed sexuality (he was homosexual in an oppressive setting).

(The Weinstein Company)
Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) “comes out” in the 2014 film The Imitation Game

I can speculate that Samantha, in a way, reflects the idea of the original Turing test in a way that Hal (from “2001: A Space Odyssey”) never could. In “Her” technologies and pathos, intelligence and love, are all messily mixed together. We should never mystify technology to the point where we forget that it was imagined, then created, by humans, based on human values, to attempt to fill human needs and desires. Movies like “Her” illustrate this.

SS: How has technology transformed our social behavior? What are other forms of technology on the horizon that we're slated to interact with, likely also affecting our social behavior? From social media online to robot toys to widescreen TVs to iPhone's Siri to tablets and Kindle e-book readers to Bluetooth ear pieces to cell phone communication steeped in movies and TV on screen, we are surrounded.

FH: We have always used multiple selves when socializing– a self for family, a self for friends, a self at work, and so on. But social media require each of these selves to be made concrete, giving them names like avatars, profiles, or accounts. Now, instead of subtly changing ourselves in different situations, say altering our clothes or ways of speaking, we have to create rules like privacy setting defining which selves we use with whom. Developers also now create fictitious selves, characters in games or like Siri on the iPhone that we interact with as if they are human-like or alive.

And we have always had relationships with objects where we treat them like they are alive, from playing with dolls to saying “my car doesn’t want to start today.” But the computer has changed this in a few ways. We can now create systems that are so complex that humans cannot predict their behavior, making them seem even more alive. The fact that computers can emulate other media such as books, film, or even the human voice also helps them to seem more human or alive. In the 90s there were debates about whether human-like systems (the technical term is AI agents) were helpful, making it easier to use computers, or dangerous, giving human control and power over to machines.

The types of technologies on the horizon, and that I research and develop at MIT, don’t fit either extreme. I think we shall see works of art – new types of stories, games, and AI – created using the computer that are finally as powerful as great works in other media, but capable of being meaningful and different for each person that uses it. Think of this new type of AI-based art as a John Coltrane song, a set of rules that allow for a different improvised experience each time it is played.

SS: How do you think more films - or even TV - will explore AI relationships in a realistic, nuanced way, like "Her," because of our increased acceptance of technology?

FH: As I argued in my book Phantasmal Media, yes. And vice-versa. I think that new forms of AI-based art will be used, like film and TV before it, to explore human relationships­, joys, and pains.



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