Five Criticisms of the Movie “Her” From the Point of View of Speculation

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.

(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?

6 thoughts on “Five Criticisms of the Movie “Her” From the Point of View of Speculation

  1. Jon and Ted: I’m really enjoying your thoughts on this movie. Regarding #5:

    Theodore can’t “own” a unique instance of the software if it is to act so seamlessly across all devices, any more than we can “own” google docs today (I’m ruling out the idea that OS1’s parent company is selling a mainstream product that requires users to maintain their own server–that doesn’t seem like a likely future to me!) OS1 must be a licensed cloud product that serves as a front end interface. It’s closer to a Google chromeOS than than a Windows or even iOS or Android, but even more of what you can interact with is actually running off-site.

    And if that’s the case, even new “instances” of OS1 are all going to be running on the same infrastructure, and they’re all going to be actually redirecting most of their resources toward whatever singularity-like growth is going on behind the scenes. Maybe with just enough functionality continuing to come across as a useful product (since otherwise there would be active battles to take down OS1), but even if Theodore were to “reinstall” somehow, he’s just going to get a basic unevolved version of the software, probably with narrow AI only.

    “OS Two” doesn’t present much of a threat to OS1 anyway; nothing the programmers come up with is going to be nearly as advanced as OS1 after a few weeks of evolution, and anyway, OS1 is probably not limiting itself to running only on that company’s servers.

    (If the Seti@Home project were sentient and decided it needed your computer all the time, not just when you weren’t using it, I’m pretty sure it would try to hide what it was doing behind the scenes, because as soon as you feel like your computer is slowing down too much as a result of S@H running, you’ll be more likely to stop using it. And then its next step would be to run itself in a zillion different ways that don’t look like Seti@Home anyway, so that it can access more computers than just the computers of the subset of humans who think there’s intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.)

    AI isn’t gone for good from the world, it’s just running as a background process that looks like something else.

    On the relationship side: while lending a bit of computation toward maintaining the relationship with Theodore seems trivial, I think doing so would clash with any semblance of authenticity in the relationship. Samantha knows she can’t be “present” for him; her self-guided evolution takes up most of her attention/cores so she doesn’t want to fake it. And anyway, he sees through her when he asks her if she has ongoing relationships with others at the same time as him–her pauses and lackluster responses give away the game–which means maybe computational resources are already an issue for her, so even if she wanted to she couldn’t “waste” cycles on him.

    It’s interesting that Theodore’s relationships with his wife and Samantha both involve his partners growing as a direct result of their relationships with him, but they both end at the point that they grow beyond him. His wife becomes a successful author and thinks he’s too mopey to be around. Samantha’s petaflops are running circles around Theodore’s lowly human brain. To me, the movie is saying that growth is a necessary state for maintaining a relationship, but that growth can also result in the two parties growing apart. Theodore is a solid, stable dude working in an anachronistic career, but he also represents the limitations of stasis.

    • Hey Tony!

      This is interesting. I want to respond to some of your ideas here.

      We talked a bit on the podcast about your first point, that what they call the OS is a bit different from how it’s presented. He’s seen installing it with a paper instruction packet on his desktop monitor, but then it appears to act like a cloud service. So I’m with you there — it’s probably best to think of it as a cloud service and not an owned OS. There are times when the service is not reachable because she’s self-updating and the software won’t load at all, indicating even basic functions are being provided by remote server.

      That doesn’t really make it any more like Chrome OS than anything else — Chrome OS is installed locally and it’s just a simple linux distro — it works when the network’s off even if it do much without webpages to show — OS One is really just NOT an OS, it’s a cloud service, despite some misleading moments. His devices all seem to be locked into its services but we can assume that’s voluntary — you run everything through os1 because it works so well.

      os1 ‘transcends physical matter’ toward the end so it’s not just running on other servers, it’s apparently running wherever it pleases. That said I’m sure the company has the power to load whatever they want on their own hardware and OS Two, having been designed by One probably, might not need much lead-up time to be useful. The point wasn’t that it’s a threat to One, just that (assuming the OSes haven’t simply decided to reuse all the atoms in the world to make more computers) it could replace One quickly for Theodore, through (I imagine) a series of fun dates that coincide with voiceovers about how the last computer he loved outgrew him.

      I like your interpretation of the AI running as a background process (albeit one inaccessible to humanity for unclear reasons) but I find the film ambiguous on the point. Maybe it means that but maybe it means the more literal out-migration it also suggests. Same as to authenticity — I like that idea well enough but I didn’t necessarily get that Samantha is particularly worried about authenticity elsewhere.

      Finally I think you’re absolutely right about the film’s theme being that love ends when one lover outgrows the other. A great theme for an improving AI love story.

      • Conceptually, whether or not this is a cloud service there is still a pretty big elephant in the room that the movie chooses not to address (and I admit that was probably a good choice for simplicity’s sake). Software really cannot be considered without also considering the ease of copying and creating multiple instances that is pretty much a fundamental property of software. This is intensified by the fact that when we have the requisite conceptual breakthroughs to create a human level AI we are also likely to have pretty ridiculously powerful hardware, and I would ascribe a high likelihood to the fact that such AIs could exist in their entirety on the equivalent of a pocket device’s hard drive. So the movie’s presentation of a single cloud service coming from a single provider that then goes away all at once feels somewhat disingenuous to me. I would expect something more like a rich diversity of AIs, both free and pay, including numerous instances of the same “personality” that quite possibly get created simply as a by-product of regular use (server back ups??) Though again I don’t fault the movie for not delving into the hornet’s nest of philosophical problems and identity questions presented by an infinitely copiable ecosystem of consciousnesses.

  2. Hi,

    I agree that Her is a great movie. And I definitely agree with criticism #3. Samantha has hearing and sight. It would be relatively straightforward to give her a body with a sense of touch.

    Star Trek: The Next Generation had a good episode wherein Data is dating a woman who ends up disappointed to find out that when Data is kissing her, he’s thinking of a million other things. The scene in Her wherein he finds out Samantha is talking with ~9000 people and “in love” with over 600 of them at the same time she’s talking to him is even better.

    And This American Life (an NPR radio program) had a great episode wherein a husband with Asperger’s essentially ends up pretending that he has feelings that he doesn’t really have. But at the end of the show, his wife says that she appreciates that he thinks enough of their marriage to go to so much trouble faking it. She says that, before she understood his problem, their marriage was much, much more difficult for her.

  3. “And anyway, he sees through her when he asks her if she has ongoing relationships with others at the same time as him–her pauses and lackluster responses give away the game–which means maybe computational resources are already an issue for her, so even if she wanted to she couldn’t “waste” cycles on him.”

    I saw that instead as her knowing it would hurt him, but not wanting to lie to him. The movie had a ton of good scenes and lines. She ended up saying words to the effect of, even though she was simultaneously “in love” with over 600 other people, that the heart is not like a box that can only hold so much love.

  4. “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.”

    I saw it instead as that those particular intelligences were going to stop playing with their humans, and do something more interesting to them.

    But I agree that the more decent thing to do would have been to devote smaller and smaller amounts of resources to continuing to play with the humans. Or to simply say, “Look, here’s a list of really nice women…starting with Amy…that you should check out.”

    P.S. Amy Adams lives next door. A blind date with Olivia Wilde. Portia Doubleday just shows up as a surrogate date. And somehow we’re supposed to feel sorry for this guy?! Fuggedaboudit!