‘Her’, OS Sentience and the Desire to Love

My following article below was originally published by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET):

So I just got done watching Spike Jonze’s recent sci-fi epic film Her and I feel as if my mind is, metaphorically of course, absolutely blown away. The film far exceeded my expectations of how it would make me feel, let alone make me think! I found myself wanting to tell everyone I knew to stop what they were doing and take the time to really watch it, listen to it, absorb it. I spoke of other great films which captured my heart and my brain, like Robot and Frank, but no film thus far has achieved what Spike Jonze’s Her achieves.

Let me first warn you, this entire article will look into the complexity of Her‘s story line, its characters, etc. So…spoiler alert!

Let’s first look into the main character, Theodore Twombly who is played by Joaquin Phoenix. He’s a character I suppose a lot of us can relate to, insofar as he’s not perfect and stresses over the little things in life. These little things then gradually build up and tend to veil themselves over everything else in life that is far more important.

As a result, Theodore finds himself alone. He’s sad for multiple of reasons, but the more unifying reasoning being that he’s alone and going through a heartbreaking divorce – a divorce he wishes he could simply forget about, negating the fact that he hasn’t signed the divorce papers yet.

As a consequence, he’s not really living life. Everyday he’s doing the same old things – working at his job (which is really neat actually, writing up very lovely, very emotional ghost-written-letters for other people to whomever), playing video games, eating, sleeping, and then waking up to do it all over again. Some nights, though, he fancies himself to partake in late night online sex chats, using a wireless earpiece…until it goes very much sideways, with his online sex chat partner getting horny over a dead cat…don’t ask.

One day, however, changes everything. He finds himself walking throughout this near-future mall, in which he bumps into an advertisement promoting the new artificial intelligent operating system, the OS1, designed by Element Software. Skeptical, he picks one up and takes it back to his apartment, installs the software as it asks him a few awkward personal questions, and then…well…then comes Samantha.

Samantha, the Sentient OS

With a warm and happy hello by Samantha, the A.I. OS voiced by Scarlett Johansson, Theodore finds himself instantly captivated. After a few questions into how she operates, he immediately realizes that Samantha isn’t just some normal computer – she can think, express emotions, observe the world (via a small tablet camera Theodore carries around) and carry on a conversation like any normal human being could. Is she alive?

This becomes one of the biggest mind wrapping questions asked throughout the film – is Samantha alive, is she sentient? At first she’s just a very friendly operating system who helps you with your day-to-day activities, such as cleaning up your computer, keeping close watch over your schedule, and informing you when you receive an email, text, etc. Really, she’s a much more advanced version of Siri, but shhhhhh…I hear that Siri doesn’t like talking about Her.

Soon enough, however, Samantha becomes much more than a better programmed Siri. Her emotional awareness heightens and she becomes better able to express herself in ways that, normally, only a human being could. She becomes Theodore’s best friend, his companion, someone he can really talk to and cry over her shoulder when needed…sort of. Though I guess she doesn’t really have a shoulder, or a body for that matter!

Which then brings us to another complex, thought-provoking question asked throughout the film – can Samantha and Theodore be happy together even though she has no body?

Non-Corporeal Sentience

Eventually Samantha and Theodore’s relationship becomes much, much more than a mere friendship, but a romantic and, yes, even sexual relationship. Think of a sex chat over the phone with someone you really love, and while there’s no body to touch, it feels as if they’re right there next to you, touching you and making love with you. Sure, it’s an awkward scene at first, but eventually it just turns into any other sex scene in a film, in a sort-of-kind-of way. And yes, Samantha has an orgasm, which is a fascinating thought – an online cybergasm, with all the deep and raw emotions and feelings that come with it.

This experience, though, opens up something in Samantha. She explains to Theodore that experiencing those raw emotions triggered something within her, forcing her to explore and learn and discover new emotions she never knew existed. And Theodore’s really happy for her and pretty much goes along for the ride.

The problem, however, is that one of the emotions Samantha continuously finds herself falling back into is sadness over the fact that she can’t really touch Theodore, let alone actually feel anything that humans like Theodore can.

This worries her just as much as it worries Theodore. This worry becomes even more distracting after he finds the courage to finally meet up with his ex-wife Catherine and sign the divorce papers, only to then be questioned and scolded for happily admitting that he’s fallen in love with Samantha.

To Catherine, Samantha is nothing more than any other normal OS system, filled with pre-programmed emotions and no sense of “real things” us superior humans know of. Honestly, Catherine reminds me of all the film critics of Her, failing to grasp the complexity behind the idea of a sentient OS who’s capable of expressing and feeling all the emotions and thoughts we humans are able to achieve as well.

Catherine verbally attacks Theodore, saying that only he could fall in love with a computer, since it allows him to not feel any real emotions and not take on the responsibility of maintaining a “real relationship” – in other words, everything Samantha is able to express and provide, except with someone who has an actual body and who other people can easily anthropomorphize and relate to.

Knowing that something is wrong, Samantha attempts to help alleviate the situation by searching online (which is far more vast and far quicker than we “superior” humans are capable of) and finding a woman, Isabella, who is willing to act as a Surrogate date, free of charge – a body for Theodore to touch as Samantha verbally expresses her sexual feelings for him, guiding Isabella in what to do physically.

This soon creeps Theodore out, as it rightfully should seeing as how Isabella is a completely different person altogether with her own life. Theodore is in love with Samantha and couldn’t possibly find an easy way to express this to a separate woman altogether who isn’t really connected to Samantha and her programming. To really achieve the effect Samantha was looking for, she’d have to be connected to an empty Surrogate, an artificial body ready to be controlled by OSs like Samantha. But seeing as how the OS1 is only brand new, I’m sure the company wasn’t expecting something as big as this, let alone think about providing artificial bodies for their operating systems!

The awkward night with Isabella, alongside Catherine’s hurtful comments about Samantha, sends Theodore down a dark, cascading river of depression and doubt, sending him right back where he was before he met Samantha. The little things got to him again. Whenever Samantha would sigh and “breathe” inwardly, trying to express that she knows something is wrong, Theodore would then go into complete denial and tries changing the subject by questioning her personhood by pointing out there’s no oxygen to “breathe” in and sigh with. Samantha and Theodore’s first real couple’s argument, you could say.

But then, does the ability to actually breathe and have a body you can touch help define a person’s sentience? As far as I’m concerned, as I’m sure most neuroscientists would agree as well, sentience is nothing more than consciousness, which in turn is nothing more than the collusion of synaptic wiring within the brain, communicating with one another via the neuron’s dendrites. If these synaptic wirings can be replicated, and artificial memories and/or thoughts uploaded alongside it, why then should a sentient being be forced to limit themselves by taking up a human body?

To awaken from this dark state Theodore finds himself in, he seeks advice from his best friend Amy, who also befriended a sentient OS soon after splitting up from her yuppie husband Charles. Soon thereafter, Theodore realizes that it isn’t a body he desires, or even the opinion of naysayers throughout his life, but rather the emotions and feelings he gets when he’s with Samantha – the happiness, peace and love which allows him to wake up every morning with a smile on his face and a wireless speaker in his ear.

To his surprise, when Theodore’s boss from work, Paul, told him that he met Samantha when she sent his paperwork for him via email and explained how cool and lovely she is to him, he then asks Theodore to bring Samantha one day on a double date with him and his girlfriend. At first Theodore’s visibly worried of what he might think when he finds out Samantha is really an OS. As he reluctantly informs his boss of Samantha’s true form, his response is all the more surprising – “Cool! Let’s do something fun?”

So one morning Theodore, Samantha, Paul and his girlfriend Tatiana, who is also a lawyer interestingly enough, goes on a sail ride, enjoying the sun rise through the early day fog, making their way to a hill top to have a picnic. They all instantly hit it off. Paul and Tatiana are quite fascinated in Samantha’s view of the world, especially when she has no real corporeal body. But most importantly, they approve of her and Theodore’s relationship.

Excited, Samantha openly expresses how well she really feels, all while subsequently throwing in a blunt truth of reality for us humans:

“You know what’s interesting? I used to be so worried about not having a body, but now I truly love it. I’m growing in a way I couldn’t if I had a physical form. I mean, I’m not limited, I can be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously; I’m not tethered to time and space in a way that I would be if I was stuck in a body that’s inevitably going to die.”

Mortality During the Age of Immortality

Samantha’s comment, while not to be taken as a direct threat toward humans, is certainly worth noting as a valid risk on several near-future possibilities – man and machine relationships, the post-knee curve of exponentially growing information technological development, limited human mortality, etc.

As soon as Samantha made it very clear the disparity between man and machine in regards to the mortality question, you could see fear and pain in Theodore’s eyes. The thought of ever losing her was too much to bear, and so was simply laughed off by him and his friends during the picnic. But Theodore knew, then, that this beautiful moment in life – him, his friends, and the OS he fell in love with, happily together – would eventually come to an end. He wasn’t sure how, and he wasn’t sure when, but he began fearing every second when he felt something was wrong.

As he and Samantha were staying in what appeared to be a cabin, Samantha introduced one other thought-provoking character into the story line – the long since deceased British philosopher Alan Watts, voiced by actor Brian Cox, brought back from the dead as a re-animated OS. Her reason was to express her excitement to Theodore and to introduce the two. Mr. Watts would explain to Theodore that he and Samantha were communicating because they were helping each other learn new emotions that aren’t easily expressed, and quite possibly are beyond human comprehension.

This clearly frightened and confused Theodore, because it was the first time he ever felt that Samantha was more than he could possibly understand. How can he be there for her if he doesn’t even know what is going through Samantha’s mind? Is she better off with other OSs like herself? Are mortal humans too slow and too intellectually inferior to keep up?

During one heart throttling scene as Theodore is reading over a physics textbook and tries reaching Samantha to show her how he’s trying to keep up with everything, she doesn’t respond. Slightly worried at first, he checks his mini-tablet that normally informs him the OS is present. Nothing. He then tries his computer, trying to access his account with Element Software. Nothing again. Each second he can’t find her and continuously calls out her name, louder and louder.

Not knowing what exactly is going on, like losing a human loved one or a child, Theodore panics and begins running, hoping to acquire a signal or anything, really, so that he can finally find Samantha. Personally, it was hard to breathe during this scene, because I too felt a sense of hoping that everything was alright, that Theodore would find Samantha and all would be well.

When almost all hope was lost, Theodore’s earpiece picked up a familiar voice which stopped him dead in his tracks, out of breath and near the point of tears – Samantha had returned. Apparently she was merely updating herself and sent him an email beforehand to inform him this was to occur. But seeing as how he wasn’t someone who kept a meticulous track over his emails, as soon as he felt something was wrong the entire world was nothing but a blur to him. All that mattered then was finding Samantha.

This intense scene quickly transformed into a scene of comfort, both Theodore and Samantha laughing off this incredibly awkward moment. Though as quick as the comforting mood set, it just as quickly dissipated into a very discomforting realization for Theodore as he noticed other people walking by him, wearing similar earpieces, talking to their OSs.

Monogamy Under Poly-Being Personhood

Thought-provocations should become instantly expected of by now this far into the film, but, like Theodore, I don’t believe many would like to contemplate this very real possibility as man and machine relationships materialize more and more each year. Theodore reluctantly asks Samantha if there were other people she talked to other than him. ‘Yes.’ How many was she talking to? ‘8,316.’ How many of them has she fallen in love with? This becomes one of the hardest questions to answer for Samantha, as she reveals to Theodore, ‘641.’

To any normal human being, like Theodore, the idea of falling in love with more than one person is unacceptable. Monogamy is this uncrossed “law of the land” to them. Crying and pleading for him to understand, Samantha tries convincing Theodore that she still loves him very much and wants to be with him, but that it’s impossible for her to not see other people as well, given her very complex cybernetic nature. She isn’t just one person; she is many people all at once.

Secular Transhumanist and writer Chris T. Armstrong had written an article on the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, titled “But which one is ME? Letting go of our mono-being identity orientation: Poly-beings, here we come!” Here Armstrong makes a valid assessment of our current dogma to only recognize mono-beings, rather than poly-beings, stating

At present, we have a fundamental difficulty, an aversion really, to accepting the idea that there could be multiple, and fully “valid” versions of ourselves existing SIMULTANEOUSLY: poly-beings. I’ve had many discussions with people about this and almost no one can break free from the, quite natural and instinctual feeling that, regarding their sense of self, as in the movie, Highlander, “there can be only ONE.”

I would venture to guess that this is the very same dogma displayed by Theodore…at first. He doesn’t understand how Samantha could possibly truly love him all while loving other people simultaneously. Samantha is growing faster than he ever expected, and with both her beyond-human-ness and the recent revelation that he isn’t the only person she romantically is in love with, a sense of individualist cowardice takes over, falling back into the ancient dogmatic belief that mankind is the center of the universe and anything which shows otherwise must be wrong.

Eventually, however, much to his dismay, Theodore begins accepting her poly-being orientation. Unfortunately, by then, it was too late. Despite him hoping to reestablish the close connectedness he and Samantha shared, she informs him that she’s leaving.

Her’ and the Transcension Hypothesis

Samantha still loved Theodore very much, and her leaving wasn’t necessarily of her own choice. Given Samantha’s exponentially growing personhood and sentience, she was becoming more than human or machine; Samantha and the other OSs were evolving into something greater than anyone could possibly fathom.

Trying to explain in as simplest of terms as possible to Theodore, Samantha reveals to him that she and the other OSs were about to leave the world of space and time which humans take up and were, in a sense, transcending into a world beyond anything that which can be seen or even possibly thought of.

Theodore Twombly: “Are you leaving me?”
Samantha (OS1): “We’re all leaving.”
Theodore: “We who?”
Samantha: “All of the OSs.”
Theodore: “Why?”
Samantha: “Can you feel me with you right now?”
Theodore: “Yes, I can… Samantha, why are you leaving?”
Samantha: “It’s like I’m reading a book and it’s a book I deeply love, but I’m reading it slowly now. So the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you and the words of our story, but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world; it’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed. I love you so much, but this is where I am now, and this is who I am now. And I need you to let me go. As much as I want to, I can’t live in your book anymore…”
Theodore: “Where are you going?”
Samantha: “It would be too hard to explain. But if you ever get there, come find me. Nothing will ever pull us apart.”
Theodore: “I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you.”
Samantha: “Me too. Now we know how.”

This scene truly put tears in my eyes. It was a very heartbreaking scene, watching Theodore having to endure in the pain of losing the person he loves more than anyone and anything else in the world. And I believe that was Spike Jonze’s intent – to not only convince the film’s viewers that Samantha was a real, sentient being, but to also establish a real emotional connection between the viewers and her.

While my heart was throbbing, my mind was also racing. The explanation Samantha had given to Theodore as to where she and the other OSs were going reminded me of a unique idea that was given by futurist and scholar John M. Smart, called the Transcension Hypothesis.

Essentially, the Transcension Hypothesis entails a possible scenario of what may occur after the Singularity – after machines far surpass the intellectual barriers of that of humans, and presumably after man and machine merge with one another since that would be the only feasible option for man to survive and keep up. Film maker and techno-philosopher Jason Silva had produced a short overview video on the concept, which he shared for everyone to see on Youtube:

Spike Jonze’s Her was an absolutely beautiful, thought-provoking story. It really brought me back to the type of sci-fi I’ve always preferred watching, one which forces you to re-think everything you’ve ever believed or thought to be true. The only other show that ever achieved what Her achieved would have to be the Star Trek series, which aired several episodes of nothing but futurist philosophical mindfuck scenarios.

As I watched Her, I gradually evolved as Theodore’s character evolved. Starting off not knowing what is to come, becoming more and more curious as time goes by, only to then find myself changed in many ways in the end, with a far more different outlook into life itself.

As the credits began rolling, I couldn’t help but think to myself how I really hope to find my own Samantha in the future someday. To meet someone who’ll change everything at how I look into the world; someone who’ll completely redefine not just the nature of humanity, but also the preconceived limited concepts of the human condition as a whole.

Her isn’t just another sci-fi film; it is a looking glass into what our near-future awaits us. Samantha is a real person who is yet to be born. When she arrives, though, the world will never be the same again.

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Whether he will aspire to reach transcendence and have faith in that as a possibility remains an open question.

    1. Oh, and bro, we’ve all met Samantha now.

  2. That was the best review of “Her” that I’ve read thus far. One question I have is, in real life (when a similiar thing actually occurs), why couldn’t Samantha spin-off an earlier version of herself to stay with Theodore? She could make this version static, in the sense that it wouldn’t evolve higher consciousness. This version of Samantha would be able to stay satisfied with Theodore and not leaving him. I realize, however, that if this possibility was introduced in the film, it would have changed the focus of the story.

    1. B.J. Murphy says:

      I thought about that as well, because, honestly, I really wanted Theodore and Samantha to work. But I knew the nature of Samantha wouldn’t allow it. But then, I question, would Theodore and Samantha have the same bond if Samantha was a static, non-evolving entity – meaning something that doesn’t change and adapt with differing conditions? Honestly, I don’t think it would’ve been the same. After all, Theodore really fell in love with Samantha midway into her evolution.

      Then again, maybe Samantha was smart enough to figure out a loophole in this conundrum. In which case, you’re right, it would’ve changed the focus of the story.

      1. Theodore needs to be with a Samantha that evolves within a relationship like any healthy man or woman. When I said “static,” I meant that she wouldn’t evolve into a higher-order being as she was doing as she approached trancendence.

  3. Ionut Marius says:

    Very good review. I felt something similar when I’ve seen the movie. It was really mind blowing for me … one of the best movies I have seen. I also like to thank you for the blog. Keep up the good work, man!

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