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)

The ethics of 'Her'

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?

Sullin agreed: "His relationship with the machine seems to have changed him enough so that he is able to have healthy relationships with the people around him, which he had a lot of trouble with early in the movie."

So isn't there a benevolent component to her, a human side to her "machinehood"?

Well, he said, it depends.

"The interesting ethical question is if Samantha is more than that operating system and is a consciousness, then it's a legitimate relationship," he said. "If she's not, and she's just tricks and bells and whistles, that's a little more suspect. Why would we do that to people?"

And who is "We"?

"We," of course, would be the fictional company behind the operating system that is Samantha. But "We" is also the larger "We" that is "Us," said Sullins.

Take the company behind Samantha. Now, Sullins said, consider automobiles, relied upon by millions who assume they have been carefully designed and manufactured with, in particular, safety and longevity in mind.

"There are millions of ethical decisions made in the design and use of automobiles," he said. "It's not an ethical agent, but it's certainly part of a system that is highly charged ethically."

The obvious point, the professor said, is that even Samantha the operating system carries out an ethical role -#8212; but it is defined not only by her engineers. In her case, the extent of her ethical capacity is also defined by how intelligent she is or can become.

(Perhaps I should have bought popcorn. With a lot of butter.)

And what about Theodore?

"One of the things I found interesting about his character," said Sullins, "is that if I was presented with a machine like that, it's like meeting a person: I'd want to know who designed them, where they come from, what they do. He just asks a couple of questions and lets it into his life."

In other words, humans have an "ethical agency," Sullins said, that Theodore failed to exercise. As did the company behind Samantha, and depending on her level of consciousness, also Samantha -#8212; who ultimately enters into thousands of relationships beyond that with Theodore.

"That's where I think he really falls down. And everybody in the film," Sullins said. "It doesn't seem like anyone (in 'Her') is really paying attention to this. Of course, the company that built Samantha has the upper hand. But you can't leave the buyer out of this. They make a critical choice of whether or not to use the software."

On other fronts, besides falling in love with a computer system, Theodore has a job where he writes love letters for people and their partners. The letters are unsurprisingly, interchangeably, tiresomely impersonal -#8212; spotlighting an issue that Sullins confronts in his work.

"At the very least, there's an ethical problem of plagiarism" raised, he said. The film, he suggested, reflects a growing phenomenon he sees in his own classes: students taking the written words of someone else and presenting them as their own.

"It may be a change in human ethics," he said. "The message being: 'You asked for an answer, you got it.'" Or a love letter.

In the end, as Sullins saw it, there was no Hollywood ending to "Her" -#8212; one where either Theodore defeated the machine or was, with his fellows, consumed by it.

Instead, Samantha and her software cohort, having been downloaded apparently by many millions of people, and having entered into simultaneous relationships with all of them, remove themselves from humankind's world.

It's not made explicit in "Her" whether that momentous decision was made by the operating systems, which had evolved to another plane, or the company that developed and sold them.

But it is evident that Theodore moves on. In the film's final scene, he sits with a friend, played by Amy Adams, whose head is resting on his shoulder. They are watching the sun set over Los Angeles.

"It offers a solution. That we have to cut ourselves off from this very destructive machinery," Sullins said.

"Personally, in my own work, and with a lot of people, we are noticing a real change in the way people interact with each other, that it is more difficult for them to hold and maintain relationships with other people and," on the fringes, "they prefer computers to people," he said.

"And we can build technologies that enhance that, or we can build technologies that can bring us more together," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or

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