It’s not just an OS. It’s a consciousness
Recently I watched Spike Jonze’s movie “Her”, one of the many very good movies that (paradoxically) were published in 2013. In the movie, a self-aware operating system called “Samantha” grows emotions over time and Theodore, a young man coming from a recent break-up, gradually falls in love with her.
I found many references to other sci-fi movies and scientific concepts that more or less ask the same question about how can we distinguish and define what is real.
“What is your relationship with your mother like?”
The question was asked by the installer of the OS in order to personalise the OS to best fit his needs. It reminded me of the Voight-Kampff, where a Blade Runner asks a replicant to “Describe in single words only the good things that come into your mind about… your mother.”. The polygraph-like machine alongside with emotionally related questions is used to distinguish “real” humans from replicants. Again, in that Philip Dick’s iconic novel “Do androids dream of electric sheep?“, a human (ok, open ended) falls in love with a conscious machine, a replicant.
For me, the underlying question of the movie is about what is real. The very question that Philip K. Dick himself was exploring in all of his book. In his words,
But I consider that the matter of defining what is real — that is a serious topic, even a vital topic. And in there somewhere is the other topic, the definition of the authentic human. Because the bombardment of pseudo-realities begins to produce inauthentic humans very quickly, spurious humans — as fake as the data pressing at them from all sides. My two topics are really one topic; they unite at this point. Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland.
The Turing test & Eliza
In science, the defining moment for the field of AI was in 1950 the great British mathematician and father of computing, Alan Turing, in his paper Computing Machinery and Intelligence poses the question if machines can think and proposes the “Turing test”, where a program will pass it if we are unable to distinguish from a human. Many argue (myself included) that no program has yet to pass this test.
An exception may be a program called Eliza. In 1966 Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer scientist in MIT, created a program that was supposed to pass the Turing Test. The program read the user input, analysed the natural language and tried to match keywords and initialise realistic conversations. Some people were fooled and could not say if Eliza was a human or a program.
According to Weizenbaum, the most spectacular result of the Eliza experiment was how quickly many people would form emotional relationships with the program.
“I was startled to see how quickly and how very deeply people conversing with Eliza became emotionally involved with the computer and how unequivocally they anthropomorphised it”.
AI then and now
Going back to the film industry and in 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s thinking machine Hal 9000 from Space Odyssey:2001 was the first AI program that would start growing emotions and doom a whole space mission in Jupiter. And at that point, such a machine was put in the far future, in a futuristic space mission, far away from what is possible, being a purely science fiction concept.
Back to “Her”, this is exactly the difference with Samantha. Jonze’s film is in the near future and we are much closer to such a program that can seamlessly communicate with humans. We are trained by Turing test wannabes: Google Now, Siri, Wolfram Alpha and others. We are familiar with these scenes, our generation is closer to Theodore’s friends in the movie who easily accept the fact that he’s dating a computer program and even treat it as a real human, getting it involved to purely human activities like going out and having a picnic.
Just after the installation, Theodore asks it its name and from that self-defining moment, the OS is “Samantha”, it is self-aware and her feelings start growing. And this growing emotional awareness and her emotional needs is the saddest part of the story. Will AI ever be able to handle emotions?