I recently saw the movie “Her,” and while it isn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen, it is pretty much at the top when it comes to raising fascinating questions: what it means to be human, what we mean when we talk about love and intimacy, what sex is, and yes, how we can be so connected to and dependent on technology — especially technology that responds in loving ways and gives us exactly what we want — that we actually can have a romantic relationship with it.
And that’s basically what happens in the movie. Theodore, in the middle of a divorce (remember those days?) slowly falls in love with Samantha, a computer operating system. They flirt, they check in with each other emotionally, they have dates — even double dates — vacation together and have sex.
While it seems crazy that anyone can love a machine, some predict we are just a decade or two from human-robot love, marriage and sex. Artificial intelligent expert David Levy, author of Love and Sex With Robots, says that robots may not only be more lovable and faithful than many humans, but they may even be more emotionally available than the “typical American human male.”
Guys, I didn’t say it, he did — and he’s an American human male.
Samantha is not only emotionally available, but the way she care-takes Theodore (reminding him what he has to do that day, going through his emails to tell him what needs immediate attention, sending a manuscript of his writing to a publisher unbeknownst to him) is more like a mother than a girlfriend — and there’s something Freudian right there. When they have “sex” (and I have to ask myself why I feel the need to put that in quotation marks), neither touches the other, of course — just themselves (although who knows what Samantha is doing!). But phone sex works, right? Except we’re way past phone sex — Fundawear already helps couples, who may be across the globe from each other, get each other off via a smartphone app. Is that sex? Sure — no other human necessary. Look how many men prefer watching porn over real-life sex. Because we really don’t need another person to feel incredible sexual pleasure and satisfaction; most of what makes good sex occurs in the brain. Your sweetie can have the biggest, thickest member on the planet and have all the right moves and then some, but the sex will still suck if you’re thinking about how much you have to prepare for your board meeting tomorrow.
The emotion-free hook-up and NSA culture is ushering in sexbot sex.
When I spoke with transhumanist novelist Zoltan Istvan about what transhumanists imagine the future will be like when humans evolve to their best self, he said that besides living forever, humans will be bodiless — just brilliant, self-actualized, formless consciousness. So I have to imagine that sex in the transhumanist future will be a bit like Theodore’s and Samantha’s sex (and I’m so happy I won’t be around to see it; I like touch and smell way too much!).
In the movie, Theodore isn’t the only one plugged in all the time. Everyone around him is constantly futzing with his or her smartphone (or whatever they’re holding), just as we do today, and there is little human-to-human contact. Our iPads, smartphones and laptops (which seem more dated every day) are extensions of us: Who are you, an iPhone or a Droid?
There are other things happening in our culture right now that are pointing us to an actual “Her” world, writes Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has researched how people interact with technology:
There is openness to seeing computational objects as “other minds”; there is willingness to consider what a computer and a human mind might have in common; and, in a different register, there is evidence of a certain fatigue with the difficulties of dealing with people.
Read that again: “certain fatigue with the difficulties of dealing with people.” Right, because people are complicated. People have issues and needs, and who can deal with someone else’s issues and needs when we’re just trying to figure out our own (and shouldn’t my needs come first)?
Turkle, like “Her,” raises the question: What kinds of relationships are appropriate to have with machines? Which then begs the question, What is a relationship? For many people, real-life connections are just too onerous, and sex is just a big bother. Turkle sees trouble ahead:
The seductions of the robotic provide a window into how much people are tempted to sidestep encounters with friends and family. Over-stressed, over-worked, people claim exhaustion and overload. Loneliness is failed solitude. Are cyber-connection paving the way to considering robotic companions as sufficient unto the day? … I have long believed in our culture of stimulation, the notion of authenticity is for us what sex was to the Victorians — treat and obsession, taboo and fascination.
And what of love? Ah, love! While we all have an idea of love, few of us agree on what love really is. Still, that doesn’t stop people from judging others on whether they have real love just because it looks different of what they believe love should look like.
At one point, Theodore’s friend Amy, who ends up in a divorce and relying on an OS, too, comes to the realization that it isn’t whom you love, but how much you love. Is she right? She riffs off George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote when she says, “Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.”
And — spoiler alert — because love is so wonderfully crazy, it can all come crashing down on us, as it does for Theodore. Levy believes robots may be more faithful than humans, but Samantha is not. That’s what happens when you allow artificially intelligent technology to have feelings and a desire for self-actualization! Samantha leaves Theodore (but not without two-timing — or thousands-timing him — first) to seek her own happiness, and what man whose wife declares, “I want a divorce,” doesn’t know that feeling?
If robots or other forms of artificially intelligent technology can betray us, too, then what?
I’m not an alarmist about the future as “Her” presents it, but I do believe more and more people would prefer to have a relationship with a compliant piece of technology than deal with the complications, needs and emotions of a real human being. That’s why we included a brief discussion of it in Susan Pease Gadoua’s and my book, The New I Do (which, by the way, is finally in our publisher’s hands! Whew!) And we are so close to it that we aren’t even aware of it; it’s really subtle. Just this week, my friend and I used her iPhone’s Siri to get us to where we needed to be in San Francisco. I noticed she had changed the female-voiced Siri to George. I knew why, too — we have long thought that her Siri was a bit bitchy to her. My friend finally had enough.
An operating system being bitchy. Think about it.
- Do you believe people can/will/do fall in love with their electronic devices?
- Would you prefer a robot/operating system that always gives you exactly what you want over a human, who may or may not?
- Do you need to have another human present to have satisfying sex?
Tags: "The New I Do" book, Expectations, Freedom, Happiness, Honesty, Infidelity, Life, Marriage, Society, Technology