Science Goes to the Movies: Her

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Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore in <em>Her</em>
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Could you fall in love — develop a real relationship — with a computer?  In Spike Jonze’s Oscar-nominated movie Her, a lonely Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) falls hard for his operating system. Not just any operating system; a self-conscious artificial intelligence with a lovely sense of humor, named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Part of the film’s power is that its premise isn’t so improbable; we’re already dependent on our smart phones for guidance and in turn, they’re increasingly sensitive to our needs. 

As part of the series “Science Goes to the Movies,” Science Friday’s Ira Flatow gathers a group of scientists to discuss the realities behind the science fiction.

Vlad Sejnoha, of the tech company Nuance (which created the voice recognition for iPhone's Siri), thinks Samantha may be closer than we think. “We are moving from being able to support point-by-point interactions to being about to tell these systems ‘Hey, could you set up a time with my friends for dinner later this week?’” he explains. 

But recognizing speech isn’t the same as understanding it, says Steve Omohundro, a research scientist and founder of the thinktank Self-Aware Systems. Samantha “was incredibly emotionally intelligent,” he notes. “She composed very emotionally touching music, she cracked jokes. All of those things exist in some degree in laboratories around the world, but things like Siri, Watson, or Google Now are generally not so emotionally intelligent.”

For MIT professor Sherry Turkle, Her is about humans’ continuing love affair with machines. “This is a world that challenges us to say, 'do we want to stick with what human beings can offer us?' And I think the director is saying, ‘hell yeah,’" she says. "It points out in very dramatic ways the way in which relationships with people are built on vulnerability. And that’s what it is to be with people.” Even if those people aren't exactly people.

Produced by Annie Minoff.