Vanity thought #986. What’s wrong with Her?

Retail versions of last year Oscar winning movie “Her” are out so it’s a movie night. As devotees we should never waste time on frivolous entertainment like this and this movie is no exception. Sex scenes there are very loud and revolting and impossible to avoid. The only option is to turn the sound off and put subtitles on. The other option is not to watch it, yet I did. Why? Because it’s a story of AI, Artificial Intelligence.

Of course it’s not the first movie or book about intelligent robots but this one is clearly different. All the AIs before it didn’t attempt to declare themselves as actual persons and were usually too far removed from reality of modern technology. This one is just a tiny, sometimes imperceptible step up from what we already have in our pockets – I suspect this movie was inspired by Apple’s introduction of Siri in their iPhones. They just added a bit more imagination, gravitas, and upgraded Siri’s capabilities to match our expectations.

There were a few references to Siri in popular culture before, most notably with Raj of Big Bang Theory falling in love with his iPhone, this movie is a far more serious attempt to explore the implications of intelligent personal assistants and our relationships with them.

At first I thought I was going to see the evolution of this “OS1” as its called in the movie, like Pinocchio becoming a real boy, and all kinds of dilemmas build around this transformation but half way through the movie it became clear that OS1 was always a person there, it didn’t graduate from a program to anything different, except the very ending. Still, it all looked very real, very Siri like, and it’s fairly easy to imagine how this type of AI could be developed in the real world.

It starts with installation, you buy a program and you install it. It says hello and asks to learn a few things about its new owner – we do it all the time with all kinds of software. Then it asks if it could scan owner’s hard drive, emails, contacts, etc, presumably to learn more about the person it is going to assist. There’s nothing unusual about it either. Any chat app on any phone would scan contacts, all Google apps will also have access to owners’ gmail, calendar and so on.

There’s a point where this OS1 asks if the owner would like a male or female voice. That also sounds very realistic.

Then there’s a point where the owner, Theodore, asks if his new assistant has a name. Samantha, she answers. Why Samantha? “I don’t know, it sounds nice”, she says. Okay, if she is already a person, as the movie would later demonstrate, this sounds reasonable, but if she is just an app very similar to the ones we are using now, this requires a bit of programming.

First of all, the OS, Operating System, would have to be run from some central location, just like Siri, and phones and computers are just terminals to log into it. When someone activates his app the OS creates a profile for that person and puts scanned emails, contacts, and all other personal information it can find about the owner into this folder. Why? What for? Presumably to make the owner happy in a variety of ways.

So, when she says that the name Samantha sounds nice she means that based on collected personal information this is the kind of name that would sound pleasing to the owner, not to herself. She wouldn’t pick the name of owner’s ex-wife or a diseased child but would probably look for names sounding similar to high school sweethearts or other relationships that are supposed to elicit warm feelings. Then she makes an educated guess, which means out of the name pool she picks the one with the highest probability of being approved. By the owner. It’s not “her” name, she doesn’t exist, it’s just how one would go about programming “her”.

Obviously, different profiles would generate different names and appear on different phones but the central server would keep them all in one place. That’s what the OS would actually be – a big ass server simultaneously interacting with thousands and millions of people through their “personal” devices. That’s what Siri does, that’s what all other similar apps do, too. No internet – no Siri, all she does on your iPhone is record your voice input and send it to mothership for processing, then she plays back the reply.

This Samantha in the movie is of course many times better than Siri in every aspect but principally it’s still the same thing. Going over to the Google camp – if you sign into Google in your Chrome browser it records a lot of personal information about you – what you search for, what you click on, what are your favorite sites, what are you bookmarks, which sites you visit more often and so on. For now they use this data to present you with relevant advertising but they also use it to present personalized search results. In my case they would put results relating to religion at the top of the page, which I accept as validation of my attempts at becoming a devotee. Google also uses this collected data for services like Now, which is their equivalent of Siri. It’s already superior to Apple version in many ways but that’s just the beginning. With slightly better technology Google can do everything that Samantha does already.

Check grammar and spelling in your documents? MS word already does that. Inform you of important emails – Gmail already filters your inbox and already knows what’s important and what’s not. Answer various queries – that’s what Siri did from the start. Ask you about your day and how you feel – don’t need a genius to program this kind of questions.

You can also program the app to ask you more about your person, from favorite colors to sport teams to political views to previous relationships. Based on this information it should be able to predict your reactions to any kind of news or even search for the news that you would find interesting. Facebook already does that – it builds your newsfeed from posts that are very similar to the ones you “liked” before.

This Samantha might ask you what you want to do about this or that news – reply, postpone, put down in your calendar and so on but this is trivial – that’s what various buttons on Facebook or other sites are for – for sharing, saving for later, bookmarking etc. They just don’t talk about it, simply show them prominently, sometimes in popups, inviting you to interact in silence. They can already activate your speakers and actually ask you but most people would find it annoying and never visit such sites again. With Samantha, however, they expect verbal interaction, so she talks. Point is, she doesn’t say anything that is not already said visually when you are on the internet.

Anyway, I don’t think I’ll say everything I want to say about this movie in one post so I guess I should wrap it up for today.

As far as AI goes, nothing shown in this movie requires it being a person. Everything can be programmed and we already know how, it’s just that technology is not there yet – we need bigger, faster computers and faster internet, that’s all.

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