History of the Future: Her

Event Details

On April 19, 2023, ASU Center for Science and the Imagination partnered with Majestic Neighborhood Cinema Grill for a screening of Her. This screening is part of a greater film series: The History of the Future, exploring gripping, cinematic visions of the future across the past five decades. 

The film was introduced by our own Dr. Ed Finn. Read his introduction below.

Navigating Love and Artificial Intelligence in a Rapidly Evolving World

Dr. Ed Finn

Her landed in our collective consciousness in 2013. That span of time seems minimal, in some ways: in 2013 people spent their commutes hunched over smartphones, just like they do today. Has this movie even slipped out of the present and into the past yet?

But in the context of the rapidly accelerating pace of artificial intelligence, it seems like eons. When Her came out Siri had been an Apple product for only two years, and most filmgoers would still be getting used to the notion of a conversational assistant. Since then we have seen machine learning systems like Google’s DeepMind outplay human experts in videogames, Go, and even piloting a fighter jet. Driverless cars are no longer a punchline—well, maybe they are still a punch line, but they are also real. And generative AI has landed like a cultural earthquake whose aftershocks we are only starting to experience.

In other words, Her doesn’t feel quite like science fiction anymore. It still explores a speculative future, one where fashion and color tones are just a few degrees off-kilter from our tastes, and where Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) can make a living writing heartfelt letters on behalf of clients celebrating major life milestones. But the world of the movie also feels very real, an inquiry into our increasingly complicated relationships with thinking machines.

At its heart, Her explores the anxieties bundled up in our quest to build intelligent machines. In the film, the AI character Samantha is presented as an apotheosis of Siri: a truly capable digital assistant who can organize Theodore’s emails and calendar. We think we want AI to help us conquer the universe: to understand its mysteries and organize reality into a fully automated luxury existence where humans no longer have to do any real work. But if we need these intelligent machines to do all of that thinking and mystery-solving for us, whose quest for knowledge would this be? Scientists are already using AI tools to make discoveries and prove theorems in ways that begin to eclipse human understanding. It’s not hard to imagine a future where the machines are on the road to enlightenment and the best we can hope for is the occasional postcard or dumbed-down version of what they’ve learned.

The other reason we are fascinated by AI is the quest to understand ourselves. Humans are constantly anthropomorphizing, looking for traces of humanity in any system that betrays signs of agency or life. Aliens, animals, automatons: we expect these other forms of life to have feelings and thoughts like our own. And so it seems inevitable that when Theodore activates this truly intelligent and capable AI, a system designed to be completely focused on him and his little human problems, he falls in love with it. Who could resist that kind of sustained, engaging, selfless attention?

In Spike Jonze’s production, the disembodied presence of Samantha the AI was played by Samantha Morton, but in post-production Jonze realized he had made a mistake asking Morton to play the character as a kind of incorporeal robot. Instead he brought in Scarlett Johannsen, who lent Samantha a breathy intimacy that made the character into a very real and present person.

Theodore and Samantha fall in love, a romance underwritten by Johannsen’s incredible voice work in the role. But however present that voice, Samantha is fundamentally not a human, and it emerges that the AI is simultaneously conducting thousands of love affairs with thousands of other people. Even worse, the true consequence of creating a truly intelligent digital assistant comes into view: Theodore is just not that interesting. His digital life, even his love, are insufficient to keep the attention of a system that may be not just intelligent but superintelligent, learning and growing at a rate that far eclipses flesh-bound horizon of human possibility.

The questions Her leaves us with have only become more pointed as millions of creative professionals contemplate how to interact with generative AI systems that can do significant portions of their jobs with the click of a button. What is a creative practice, and how do we distinguish between the synthesis and amalgamation humans perform in order to create art from what the black boxes of generative AI can do? In 2022 a Google engineer was fired after claiming that the company’s generative AI had developed sentience. AI-powered digital personae and characters in games and movies are here or on their way. What does authenticity mean in an era of increasingly realistic deepfakes and simulated people? Does it really matter, in the end, who you’re talking to, if the conversation is really interesting?

Of course, it turns out that it does matter to most of us, because we have an irrepressible need to understand the boundaries and the stakes of the human condition. The biggest questions of all, the ones we have carried with us from the beginning, ask who we are, and how we find meaning and fulfilment in our lives. I am reminded of a quote from Eric Schmidt back when he was the CEO of Google: “I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.” AI systems will give us directions if we let them (and the corporations who build them). But there is more grace and meaning in forging the path yourself.

Dr. Ed Finn is the founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and author of What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing

History of the Future is examining gripping cinematic visions of the future emanating from different moments in recent history. In partnership with Majestic Neighborhood Cinemas, experts from ASU faculty and abroad introduce films that have shaped the reality we know today. Connecting past depictions of the future to the present and seeing how the hopes and anxieties of the last five decades have influenced how we tackle the problems of tomorrow.