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The ethics of 'Her'

  • This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from "Her." The film was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. The 86th Academy Awards will be held on March 2. (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures)

There seems no other way to put this than to say that this essay is about human beings. And computer operating systems. And how each behaves and what that suggests about us. And it is about love. And also about business.

Read no further if you don't want to learn of crucial plot twists in "Her," the Spike Jonze movie that raises a host of ethical questions about the relationships between humans and super-smart technology, and what we owe ourselves and one another in our high-tech world.

For those still with us, the plot: Joaquin Phoenix plays a character, Theodore, who is disengaged from life and love, and who falls for an extremely intelligent, ever-evolving computer operating system named Samantha, played, unseen, by Scarlett Johansson in dulcet tones.

The "couple" -#8212; she in the form of an earpiece and a smartphone -#8212; flirt, laugh, go on playful dates, make virtual love. Samantha explores Theodore's emails and, eventually, most of his life. They argue, too, and then make up. Or do they?

It is material seemingly created for Sonoma State University philosopher John Sullins III, who specializes in issues of artificial intelligence and computer ethics. He agreed to watch "Her" with me, and said that the film, set in Los Angeles in some undated future, evokes issues very topical today.

"The idea is that you can create artificial intelligence that can learn on its own," he said.

"At a certain point, you have a machine that can program itself. If that happens, the worry is that you get these artificial intelligences that will expand to the point where their interests are really different than ours. ... To us, it's important that they care about us enough to not endanger us."

With that, the professor dove into the well-trodden but still unnerving idea of machines being designed to interact with humans on what we presume to be a uniquely human level.

OK, he said: "All this data that Google's getting from you with this low-level, unemotional interface -#8212; a text search -#8212; imagine what would happen if Google made you fall in love with it. It would be able to suck information out of you and monetize it at an extraordinary rate."

Point taken. Fear the machine and, perhaps more so, its maker. But Samantha is kind, she lifts Theodore up and by the movie's end, has helped him make a striking, important transition. Isn't it a two-way transaction?


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