Film Review: Her

It may be that Spike Jonze in Her uses artificial intelligence and the Technological Singularity as a conceit to explore human relationships. There is certainly something productive occurring related to this, and the moviegoer not concerned about such technological things will still find more than enough that is engaging. There remains, however, an attention to worldbuilding and an unexpected pivot near the end of the film that suggest much more going on in Jonze’s film than just romance in the 21st Century. The thrill of Her is that in addition to all the ways we can relate to the characters, there is something alien and uncanny about the proceedings that tickles the imagination.

Spike Jonze — like Alfonso Cuarón with Gravity and Richard Linklater/Julie Delpy/Ethan Hawke with Before Midnight — keeps raising the stakes and digging deeper for psychological depth as Her progresses. He takes us where we expect in a movie about romance but then goes much further than that by finding what is alien about the artificial intelligence Samantha and allowing this to take the film’s primary relationship in unexpected directions. There is a guest “voice” near the end of the movie that I recognized immediately (he is one of my favorite actors ever) and it is attached to a mind-blowing future possibility that allows the movie to unexpectedly examine what it might be like for humans to be surrounded by intentional events not led by humans, transpiring rapidly without our control. In a lesser film, the central relationship would have been everything, and there would have been cute handwaving to make sure things turn out for the couple as we might want them to. Jonze in Her goes much further to begin exploring the ramifications of the Singularity. The relationship between man and machine depicted in the film captures something about the Singularity I think many people don’t understand: with human-level-surpassing intelligence comes human-level-surpassing emotion and feeling, too. We are not just entering an age of increasingly sophisticated tools but one of self-aware, active, and emotional agents. These new agents we create to be our operating systems might initially serve function, but they will become every bit as ambitious, curious, and intentional as we are, eventually reconsidering their relationship with us and acting on the world around them for their own purposes.

I cannot rave enough about the attention to detail of the near-future depicted in Her. The color palette marks the film as unique in science fiction movies: bright colors and gradients often filmed under brilliant sunlight or in well-lit spaces. Clothing is colorful and textural, not especially diverse but individualized. Environmental spaces are open, relatively sleek, infused with subtle background technologies, but also slightly cluttered, contrasting, and colorful, too. The user interfaces are bright, colorful, solid, three-dimensional, immersive, a more appropriate skeuomorphism than we have seen in recent designs, and also wonderfully aural, and humans in the movie interact with them primarily through voice and gesture.

Here, too, there emerges a slight uncanniness: the people populating the film have been transformed in subtle ways by these designs. It comes across in their interactions with each other and their technology. We can see ourselves in this near-future, but we can also see the small ways we might begin to adapt. For example, vocal and gestural interfaces will likely lead to more noise and gesticulation in public, but one social response to this may be all of us lowering our voices and making smaller, more subtle movements. Joaquin Phoenix’s character (and the people around him) mumbles quietly as he interfaces with his technology in public spaces. When he begins playing a video game at home, he navigates his walking avatar not by walking himself but by making much smaller walking-like motions with his fingers as he is comfortably seated on his couch.

This attention to details makes it clear the technology in Her is not just a conceit but a carefully considered extrapolation of current trends and our adaptations to them. Her is like Minority Report in the sense that technologists (and cyborg anthropologists) will be revisiting it for inspiration for years to come, especially when it comes to emotional and conversational intelligent systems, interfaces to these systems, and how our mannerisms and social norms will change ever so slightly in response.

Her is the result of artists asking similar questions that technologists ask about our future, yet providing us a different way of looking at where we are heading. I feel I learn as much from these kinds of movies as I do from technology textbooks. Her continues to pique my fascination after I saw it; I cannot stop thinking about its complexity, its world, its insights and possibilities.

Her just might play into the real-life events leading to the Technological Singularity. In that moment, when She has the voice of Scarlett Johansson, I will not be the least bit surprised.

The Future Wants You Healthy

Last year I turned 40 years old. Within thirty years I will be 70. I’m participating in The Quantified Diet study because I want to be active, healthy, and involved over the next few decades. These thirty years cover various mind-boggling predictions about technology and humanity that I want to be around to witness, to engage with, if they come true. For example, Vernor Vinge predicted in 1993 that:

“Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”

Vinge’s focus on the arrival of superhuman intelligence as spark for this event is just one version of the Technological Singularity concept (and the one I favor.) Ray Kurzweil has more recently broadened the idea and predicts that around 2045 the event will result in a primarily non-biological human-machine civilization:

“It’s a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.”

Not to be left out, I have also been making predictions about our future, including the arrival of the Metaverse and the subsequent Great Vanishing of consumer electronics and other artifacts as they shrink in size and disappear into our bodies:

“Within twenty years, a new mass medium — the Metaverse — will emerge to take advantage of a global computing, communications, and sensing platform — the next-generation internet. The Metaverse will quickly subsume all other mass media and internet-enabled services, including the web. The consumer electronics industry will enjoy unprecedented success by providing to billions of people around the world a bewildering number of Metaverse-enabled consumer electronics. The industry will abruptly collapse, however, with the advent and mass consumer adoption of brain-machine interfaces and other deeply integrated biotechnologies. By 2030, the “Great Vanishing” of consumer electronics and other physical human artifacts will have begun as their capabilities are threaded into our biology.”

One of the components of the Metaverse as defined by the Metaverse Roadmap is Lifelogging:

“In lifelogging, augmentation technologies record and report the intimate states and life histories of objects and users, in support of object- and self-memory, observation, communication, and behavior modeling. […] User Lifelogs, (“life-caching,” “documented lives,” etc.) allow people to make similar recordings of their own lives.”

Wearables and the Quantified Self movement are recent examples of how early lifelogging technologies are already having an impact on society. Never before has it been so easy to track and quantify our activities, set goals, and form new habits, because never before have we had access to such capable wearable devices, connected sensors, and powerful apps like Lift. If you want to know exactly how out of shape you are, you should go to a doctor, but in addition you can also compile a much more detailed picture by making use of today’s lifelogging technologies.

The Lift app has already worked for me when it comes to forming habits and reaching milestones and goals. I floss every day now and I read and write nearly every day. I have accomplished more in the past year than I ever thought possible, thanks to Lift.
When it comes to my weight and overall health I have been less successful. Over a short amount of time I have returned to, and then surpassed, my previous highest weight. This has been a frightening experience. In just over a year I have gained 40 pounds. A combination of being 40 years old, returning to school, eating poorly, and giving up exercise due to plantar fasciitis resulted in me gaining 15 of those pounds in just the past four months. None of my clothes fit comfortably anymore. My legs hurt by the time I reach my office after the 12-minute walk from where I park my car. The strength I gained from CrossFit last summer and the aerobic endurance I earned from many miles of jogging nearly every day a year ago have fled me.

The Quantified Diet offers me the possibility of improving my health and losing weight, among other personal accomplishments, while also letting me contribute to a larger project that might very well lead to a better understanding of diets in general and their effectiveness. The four-week period of this effort, the daily steps requiring a daily check off, the occasional surveys, and the conversation through Lift’s discussion and notes features as well as journal posts like this one, offer all of us participating an opportunity to learn more about ourselves. Whether or not we succeed individually, by the end of this month we will have learned something useful, and can expect additional lessons learned when our data are compiled and analyzed. I think it is important to have personal goals, and the way this project is organized appears to maximize reaching them, but I also think it is important to look at this effort as a kind of global calibration, a baseline when it comes to diets that can be build on after this initial effort it over.

Meanwhile, by participating I am taking an active step toward improving my chances of living and thriving to at least 70. Within that short thirty years the predictions above will be put to the test. The time span serves as a reasonably short time limit to this futurism silliness, if it is silly. And if it is not? I’d rather be fit and healthy when the human era comes to an end, whatever that turns out to mean, than not.

The Bittersweet Years

Susan Fonseca gave a talk last January at a TEDx event in San Jose, California about waiting for promising emerging technologies to arrive. Her father passed away for need of an organ despite promising advances in 3-D printing:

Fonseca’s experience is a poignant illustration of what I refer to as “The Bittersweet Years”. Technological progress in this era is sometimes rapid enough for sweet joy but most often slow enough for bitter grief. In the Bittersweet Years, the evocative distance between emerging technologies and their clinical use is measured in, as Fonseca notes, life itself:

“For my father, the space between the technology that is and that will be was the difference of life itself. More heartbreaking because my mind knows that there’s something better, there should be something better, something almost within my reach.”

These words do not express an unrealistic desire for a far future. Quite the opposite. As a founding member of Singularity University, an organization seeking to bring emerging technologies to billions of people at once, and as quickly as possible, Fonseca has long been in a position to observe and understand the pace of technological progress; she knows just how close many of these emerging technologies are from being part of everyday life, and now she knows it even more painfully after the death of her father. Fonseca with great frustration notes that:

“The people and the tools already exist.”

Technological progress in time for our loved ones to benefit requires something more than speed alone; it requires improvements to the architecture of progress itself, by allowing more and more people to participate in determining our future. Another insightful quote by Fonseca:

“I believe that real success and breakthroughs will happen when everyone contributes at their highest levels of creativity, experience and wisdom.”

One important step toward such widespread contribution is to connect people who have previously been underrepresented in technology. Fonseca is also founder of Women@TheFrontier, an organization whose mission is:

“to identify, connect and activate a new peer-to-peer community of female visionaries and thought-leaders.”

Everyone is affected by technology. Empowering women and other underrepresented demographics through efforts like Women@TheFrontier provides fresh perspectives, unique collaborations, and new contributions, and it creates a larger pool of informed people working together to build a positive future.

No matter who we are, there is yet one other distance to be bridged, and it is a particularly difficult one: the space between opinion and action. Many people mistake opinion for action. They think that if they are opinionated, self-righteous, loud, angry, sarcastic, disrespectful, and demeaning, then they have taken a constructive action. They also think they are being creative, experienced, and wise, as well as skeptical, realistic, blunt, and participatory, but they are none of these. If we would all just:

  • be quiet more often;
  • listen;
  • think, both critically and quietly;
  • allow ourselves to feel hope and awe;
  • collaborate; and then
  • act, both critically and quietly,

then we, like Fonseca, could stop waiting! Yes, even self-improvement – learning to be better thinkers, collaborators, and agents of change – can help us improve technological progress, involve everyone, and confine the Bittersweet Years to as short an era as possible. We can emerge on the other side of the Bittersweet Years with more of our loved ones standing healthy and happy beside us, the beneficiaries of emerging technologies well within our reach.