By: Alex Garofalo
Illustration by Christina Mastrull
In a world where humans rely on computers for everything from holiday shopping to turning off the TV, it’s not surprising we’ve turned to them to make love easier too. But in Spike Jonze’s new film, Her, this convenience is taken beyond online dating. Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with his computer operating system, Samantha, raising the question of whether it is actually possible to fall in love with your computer.
In the subtle sci-fi of Her, Samantha is artificially conscious—as opposed to just intelligent—and capable of “growing from her experiences” and evolving like a person. While modern technology hasn’t quite reached consciousness, a December Popular Science article contends that designing software that humans could swoon over would be child’s play. According to them, a program designed to be intelligent and inquisitive—meaning it asks more questions than it attempts to answer—could seduce us humans, whom Popular Science suggests are more willing to be vulnerable in front of a computer screen than in front of a real person.
The basic idea is the program could give a person the illusion of being understood, producing very real feelings of love, even if that understanding is just an illusion.
And I mean, sure, why couldn’t you love your computer? In fact, it’s pretty common to hear people say that they “love” their Mac or iPhone with a sense of genuine affection they wouldn’t have for, say, their microwave. Anything that aggregates the components of your life—your interests, tastes, schedule, etc.—has the capacity to make you feel understood, connected, and even loved. But love does not equal a relationship.
Although artificial consciousness might seem like a futuristic concept, computer scientists have been playing with the idea for decades. In the 1960s, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist created a program named ELIZA, which simulated psychotherapy by probing users with open- ended questions. Joseph Weizenbaum, ELIZA’s creator, was surprised that humans opened up so intimately to the program as if they were talking to a real, breathing therapist. Situations where users perceive computer systems as having qualities and abilities that were technologically impossible became known as "the ELIZA effect."
While a computer’s vague queries might make you feel understood, in reality the effect is no more than a heightened sense of personal intimacy. A computer will not reciprocate your actions and open up to you.
A computer cannot empathize. It can aid you in connecting the dots of your own emotions, but so can your therapist. And you wouldn’t want to date your therapist.
Like a dog that gives his irresistible puppy face when he wants food from the table, a computer can learn how to modify its behavior to achieve an emotional response. While a computer may be able to recognize, cater to, and perhaps—like the dog—even manipulate a person’s emotional needs, it cannot relate to them.
In a true relationship, a couple grows through their shared experiences. They relate to each other through their strengths and even their imperfections. Oftentimes, it is in these imperfections where true love lies.
A computer may have limitations, but no true imperfections. One of the more insightful scenes in Her shows Theodore’s frustration with Samantha exhaling before speaking during a fight. She doesn’t need oxygen and this peek behind the curtain of this programmed "person" unsettles Theodore. It acts as a disturbing reminder that, while real emotions are at play, a real relationship is not.
While human beings’ natural search to be understood could result in a program that does just that, it cannot replace the mutual understanding of another person. Even the fully conscious Samantha eventually moves on from Theodore. While they are both “growing,” they are incapable of growing together. Samantha may be a person but she cannot share in the human experience.
In this way, while we may all fall in love with our laptops, they can never truly love us back. After all, to love is to be human.