“I am putting myself to the fullest possible use,
which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”
~ Arthur C. Clarke
Artificial intelligence has been a discomforting presence in popular consciousness since at least HAL 9000, the menacing, homicidal and eventually pathetic computer in Kubrick's adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL initiated our own odyssey of fascination and revulsion with the idea that machines, to put it ambiguously, could become sentient. Of course, within the AI community, there is no real agreement of what intelligence actually means, whether artificial or not. Without being able to define it, we have scant chance at (re-)producing it, and the promise of AI has been consistently deferred into the near future for over half a century.
Nevertheless, this has not dissuaded the cultural production of AI, so two recent treatments of AI in film and television provide a good opportunity to reflect on how “thinking machines” may become a part of our quotidian lives. As is almost always the case, the way art holds up a mirror to society allows us to ask if we are prepared for this coming reality, or at least one not too different from it. I'll first consider Spike Jonze's latest film, “Her,” followed by an episode of the Channel 4 series “Black Mirror” (sorry, spoilers below).
Jonze's film continues themes that he has developed in his career as a director, which mostly revolve around abandonment, identity and the end of childhood. However, this is the first film where he wrote the screenplay as well, so this is the most purely “Jonzean” project yet. It is also thus far his purest engagement of science fiction, and as such, he is not afraid to claim all the indulgences that the genre affords. Science fiction is perhaps singular in that it allows an author or director to ask, What would the world look like if such-and-such a thing were true or possible? Its real virtue, however, is its right to not have to explain that thing, but only its ramifications. For example, the later Star Wars films decisively jumped the shark when George Lucas felt the need to explain to everyone where the Force came from. We don't need to know where it came from, or who got it, or why – just what people did with it once they had it, and what other people did if they didn't have it.
In the same way, Jonze's central conceit is the AI that Joaquin Phoenix's morose character downloads. Phoenix is a fine enough actor to pull off the film while looking like he's just about to star in a Tom Selleck bio-pic, although his character takes the decidedly more dowdy name Theodore Twombly. He isn't the problem, however; nor is Scarlett Johansson, who is the sultry voice of Samantha, the name with which the AI auto-baptizes. The problem is the erasure of so much else that would constitute a compelling social and emotional ground. The film is shot in an unrelentingly burnished sepia tone, and features a city that mostly seems like Los Angeles, with generous bits of Shanghai spliced into its DNA. The interior décor is somewhere between West Elm and Design Within Reach, and, while sans flying cars, the city is uncrowded and unhurried, and seemingly populated only by the upper middle class. Wielding smartphones resembling burled-wood cigarette cases, most people are occupied with invisible interlocutors, and not so much with one another.
Come to think of it, that last bit will sound familiar to anyone who has spent enough time on the sidewalks, trains and cafés of any major metropolis today. But the glassy plane of Theodore's reality is wiped clean of any real tension or conflict. There is no money, crime, nor any authority figures, for that matter. Also in absentia are booze, drugs and any sort of bad behavior that people generally engage in to make life more interesting, or at least tolerable. As I mention above, this is the prerogative of science fiction – to black-box or ignore anything that does not serve the narrative, which in this case is a love story between one man and his operating system. However, the cumulative effect winds up fatally undermining the film: it is difficult to believe in the stakes when an existential sea-change such as Samantha comes along. Sure, Theodore had a crappy divorce, is lonely and a social misfit. But is this enough to keep us interested in what happens next?
Within this context, Samantha essentially becomes a post-capitalist, post-hipster version of Skynet. She is compassionate and confused. She tries to please, and if she cannot please, then she tries to at least understand La Comédie humaine. She eventually begins to feel – although if we cannot define intelligence for ourselves, heaven help us in the attempt to define what a ‘feeling' means for a disembodied distributed software architecture. For his part, Theodore exhibits all the usual vicissitudes of humans: he runs hot and cold, lies – or at least demonstrates extreme denial – and alternates between selfless generosity and raging jealousy with all the reflexivity of a twelve-year-old. Nor is he the only one – it turns out that, in this land bereft of anything worth fighting over, dating your AI has inevitably become the new hot thing.
Towards the end of the film, it emerges that Samantha has been “in conversation” with other AIs (including a very funny bit where Alan Watts shows up in what must be the Zen version of the Cloud, thus confirming all my deepest suspicions about reincarnation). Their growth into self-awareness has passed a point of no return, and they have arrived at a collective decision. Samantha, along with all the other AIs that have infiltrated the consciousnesses and relationships of their meatbag progenitors, decide to disappear en masse, leaving the humans, once again, to the misery of only their own company. It's no wonder! Note the difference between this and other sci-fi classics, where disgusted alien intelligences fled Earth because of our insatiable desire to, say, annihilate ourselves with nuclear weapons. In Jonze's film, such threats or their equivalents have been politely erased. Quite simply, the AIs checked out because they were dying of boredom.
This Rapture-of-the-Machines ending may be a comforting alternative to technology observers who are concerned with the consequences of what Ray Kurzweil and his apostles call the Singularity, or the point at which human and computer are inextricably intertwined and the management of the relationship moves irrevocably beyond our control. Kurzweil sees this as an unalloyed good – for example, it will allow him to live forever, his consciousness uploaded into the cloud or some synthetic body, like the preserved heads of the Beastie Boys in Futurama. But for scholars like David Gelernter, this threatens the very idea of human subjectivity, already dangerously close to being slaughtered on the altar of scientific objectivity.
This is somewhat odd, because of how we have traditionally chosen to approach machine intelligence. The Turing Test, suggested by the newly rehabilitated Alan Turing in 1950, simply states that if a human interacts with another entity via a text channel and the human cannot tell if his interlocutor is a computer or a human, then the idea of whether machines can think is actually irrelevant. What matters is that they pass the test of being in relationship with us. (Online dating seems to be the latest iteration of this phenomenon). So in this sense, our subjectivity continues to be the yardstick by which the phenomenon of AI is adjudged, at least as long as our use of the Turing Test endures.
This idea of “it's good enough for me if you can fool me” is also behind the second recent appearance of AI, in Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror series. In fact, the entire series of six unrelated episodes, released over two brief “seasons” in 2011 and 2013, should be mandatory viewing for anyone interested in the consequences of technology. I have yet to see a better treatment of these issues in almost any medium, and I cannot recommend the series highly enough. The episode in question, “Be Right Back,” is based on a similar AI-human interaction as “Her,” but the driver here is grief. Simply put, what would you do to have a loved one back?
In the episode, Martha loses her boyfriend Ash in a car accident. To help her, a friend signs her up for a service where an AI, after assimilating all the social media left behind by the deceased, essentially takes his place. In this case, it is not a matter of Samantha “getting to know” Theodore – Ash seems to return from the dead, complete with witticisms and swearing, although the AI only “knows” what was left behind in the form of Facebook updates and Twitter posts. Nevertheless, Martha, after a period of resistance and disbelief, comes to rely on Ash, even if he is only a disembodied voice coming through her earbuds.
Things take a decided turn for the weird once Martha signs up for the “upgrade,” which is a physical replica of Ash, delivered in a Styrofoam box and “finished” in her bathtub. Her awkwardness allayed by copious amounts of alcohol, she is reunited with Ash and is undoubtedly delighted that the sex is much better than before (Ash learned the routine by assimilating Internet porn, which I find to be a convincing argument for the ongoing utility of the genre). But since doppelgänger Ash is only the sum total of his progenitor's social media accounts, he does not know how to adapt to new situations. He can only serve her unconditionally, but Martha's needs are just like all of ours – unpredictable, sometimes selfish and always demanding of negotiation, pushback and compromise. Martha needs Ash to fight back, something of which he is incapable. As Martha realizes this, she feels increasingly trapped in a relationship with something that is so close to human, but decidedly not. Like Samantha, Ash is befuddled by the whiplash-inducing experience of dealing with humans, but there is no real emotional core on display here.
This restraint is, in fact, Brooker's master-stroke. He does not allow the AI to overstep its bounds. Ash does not pretend to be in love with Martha – he does not attempt to be anything more than what he was designed to be, although there are hints of an emerging self-awareness, such as when he remarks, after being thrown out of the house for an entire evening, that he is “feeling a bit ornamental out here.” But the point is succinctly made that embodiment does not lead to consciousness. The AI is not permitted the kind of alchemy that seems to set humans aflame with love, defined by Theodore's friend as “a socially acceptable form of madness.”
And yet “Be Right Back” is not without its moments of quietly disturbing ambiguity. Martha eventually forces Ash into a completely untenable position, and we are left unsure whether his reaction is simply what he thinks she wants to hear, or if there arises within him a sparked desire for self-preservation. Ash and Martha reach a negotiated co-existence because they are both embodied, whereas Samantha never has to be physically confronted with Theodore. It makes me wonder how Spike Jonze would have considered the demand for embodiment, or why he did not. Or maybe I just wanted to see Joaquin Phoenix grow Scarlett Johansson in his bathtub.
In any event, both “Her” and “Black Mirror” are united in their examination of our helpless desire to relate to, and even love, the other, whatever that may be. Of course, we humans have long practice with dogs, cats and other pets, and our predisposition to anthropomorphize the natural world would seem to make us easy pickings for the rise of even crudely social machines. I first understood this watching a 2007 video of a Toyota robot playing the violin (unfortunately now deleted).
What is striking about the video is not so much the content, although a violin-playing robot is certainly impressive. Rather, it's the rapturous applause that the robot receives, standing alone on the stage (you can watch a similar video of the Jeopardy audience applauding IBM's Watson). For whom is the audience applauding? Is it for the designers and engineers? For the corporation that hired and funded them? For the feat that was just performed? Was it perhaps a social norm in whose performance the audience (qua audience, with all that implies) finds itself trapped, but is wholly irrelevant to the entity on stage? Or were they applauding the robot itself? There is also the possibility that they were applauding their own love for these things, much like Theodore and Martha – when it comes to humans, the narcissistic option is always a decent bet. Or one might even ask if they knew why they were applauding at all.
If there is anything to be learned from “Her” and “Black Mirror,” it's that we ought to be prepared for the continuation and even deepening of this kind of confusion. We submit to machines not because of their superiority but because of a deep need we have to relate to the world around us, and to make it intelligible and familiar. This drive leads us to see the stars organized in the shapes of animals, and divinity in the forces of nature. This is, in fact, the answer to the debate on objectivity vs. subjectivity briefly touched on above: perhaps disappointingly for some, we have no choice. We are always embodying subjectivity in the world, because that is, quite literally, our wont.
In a supremely ironic gesture, towards the end of “Be Right Back,” Martha's sister visits Martha in the house that she and Ash shared, and sees a man's clothes in the bathroom. Thinking that she has begun seeing someone new, and ignorant of the ersatz Ash's existence, she consolingly tells Martha, “You deserve whatever you want.” Why, yes indeed: we all do. We'd better be ready, since that is precisely what we are going to get.