Monthly Archives: March 2015

Talking to Machines: Movie Review of Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix

As a technologist, I’m enthralled with the future confluence of the Internet of Things (IoT), wearables (Apple Watch & many others) and intelligent virtual agents. In the world of the near future, we’ll be talking to computers even more, and lots of people will even prefer computer assistants to real people for their efficiency and predictability.

Don’t believe it? Here are three anecdotes that illustrate the trends:

Exhibit A: Play

My son of 12 is super entertained by conversing with Siri, even though her responses are generally very predictable and don’t show very much depth or understanding. Sometimes he can get her to say the funniest things.

Exhibit B: Psychotherapy

A 1960’s virtual therapist picked out keywords and then asked questions to get you, the user, to elaborate and keep talking. People, including scientists who should have known better, began holding real conversations with the therapy machine. The designer became so freaked out that the machine was essentially tricking people into believing that it was intelligent and capable of developing meaningful relationships, that he shelved the project and began lobbying against the further development of artificial intelligence.

Exhibit C: Writing

Apparently, software is being used to generate a lot of the news we read on the Internet. According to the Times, there is now so much demand for content and not enough people to write it, software is being used to fill the gap. A smart professor even figured out how to make an application that takes a topic, does a bunch of research, and writes a book about it. The program has published over 1000 books on Amazon!


My last example is the hauntingly real 2014 film, Her, starring Joaquin Phoenix. A lot of people say they hated it. I’ve heard people say it’s boring, stupid or unrealistic. Some people thought it was perverted. A writer friend of mine said it was his favorite movie of 2014.

In my view, Her was amazingly well written, acted and filmed. The film offers a very real, very personal view into our undeniable and steadily growing relationship with technology, and in the end, paints a world not of technologic horrors, but instead one of hope and redemption.

Hope and redemption? Yes. Theodore (Phoenix) in the end turns out to be not some creepy guy, but learns the meaning of love. He ends up feeling real love for Samantha (the OS), then loses her. Being in love with Samantha enables Theodore to finally understand and express his everlasting love for his ex-wife, and even helps him grow his platonic friendship with Amy, his human neighbor (who was also in love with an OS.)

For a lot of people, Theodore’s love for Samantha is “just too weird.” The love scenes, the objectification of women, it’s a lot to swallow. But look at it from Theodore’s perspective: Samantha reads his entire hard drive and gets to know him deeply. She spends literally all day and night with him, she plays videogames with him, they travel, they are intimate. They talk honestly about their feelings (just like with the therapy ‘bot, he has nothing to lose.) She wants to help him get organized, she loves his writing, she does sweet things for him. And whether or not she is real, it doesn’t really matter. He believes she is, she believes she is, and the relationship develops accordingly.

Some might argue that Theodore’s is a narcissistic love, since Samantha is so much a reflection of who he is. But I didn’t have a problem with it, because – as we are hearing so much now – our society is growing increasingly narcissistic. Why not explore what love means in the context of the increasing intimacy with technology and increasing narcissism? Theodore turns out to be quite the opposite of a narcissist. He’s portrayed as empathetic, his job as a ghostwriter of love-notes for one thing, and the fact that while Samantha may start out as a mirror for Theodore, her ultimate growth, evolution and departure, reveal Theodore as a (relatively) deep, mature and caring person.

So would I embrace the world of OS1? Am I advocating human/AI romance? Not necessarily, but if you accept as I do that the underlying technology is inevitable, that love and loneliness will always be people’s lot, and that life so frequently imitates art, then the only thing that seems unrealistic about Her is how long it took for the OS’s to grow beyond their relationships with their human clients.

A darker reading of the film might revolve around the fact that after getting to know their humans, the AI’s get bored with us, and then move on to loosely defined higher level topics, even holding a conference with an Alan Watts-like AI. One could easily see this as a fearsome outcome, in which the AI’s evolve beyond their roles in service of humans and move to the dark side. The movie doesn’t explore this, but it does show them evolving away from us. Whether we could then control them, or they control us, is a topic for another day!


A Genius Repairing the World

Genius Week is underway, and I have my own story about Bill Gates, and how I came to understand his genius.

Yesterday, while giving blood, I finally got around to reading the Gates Letter, which has been sitting open on my iPad since it came out a few weeks ago. The Letter is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation annual report of sorts. In this, their 15th anniversary year, they take the opportunity to look at three important checkpoints – where things stood for the world’s poorest in 2000, progress made since then, and some bold and exciting predictions about where we might be 15 years from now, if the current pace of innovation and level of support continue.

The overarching theme is that life for the world’s poor improved significantly in the past 15 years, and will improve even more in the next 15. And, that relatively speaking, life for the poor will improve way more than life for the rich. As the letter profoundly asserts, it’s fine that rich people will be able to watch ever-more highly defined video on ever more impossibly tiny screens, but changes for the poor will literally be life & death.

Some examples:

  • Diseases such as polio, HIV and malaria can be significantly reduced or eradicated in the next 5-15 years.
  • Infant mortality, which has been reduced by 50% in the past 25 years, could be reduced by 50% again in the next 15.
  • Hunger – Africa currently spends $50B per year importing By 2030, African farmers could increase crop yields by 50%, enabling Africa to be much closer to self-sufficiency; and reducing malnutrition, famine and starvation in the process.
  • Education – Literacy rates worldwide have increased, most significantly for females. If the trend continues, it could lead to a 12% increase in GDP for poor countries by 2030.

What I love about what the Gates Foundation is doing is that they are applying simple & elegant scientific solutions – married with caring and compassion – to some of the world’s most pressing problems.

My introduction to the way Bill thinks, or more accurately, creates; came in a speech I heard him give to a group of engineers at Microsoft. Bill was speaking at a semi-annual gathering of Systems Engineers, which was the job title I held at the start of my Microsoft career. He was talking about how we might imagine the possibilities and then make them a reality.

Specifically, he said:

Imagine a world of unlimited storage. A world of unlimited CPU processing power. And a world of unlimited communications bandwidth. Now go design software for that world.

And that speech was given in ‘93 or ‘94, before 5 cents a gigabyte, before ubiquitous fiber optics, and >10 Moore’s Law doublings ago! (That’s 1000 times more processing at 1/1000th the cost, for you math geniuses.)

It’s amazing to see the clarity of thinking and consistency between Bill then and Bill now.

I think Bill’s genius is that he is able to envision the world as it is, as it was, and as it could be; and then drive the huge engines needed to help realize his vision. That his vision is now mainly about repairing the world is a blessing for us all.

He’s also a super funny guy and showman, as evidenced by this recent appearance with Jimmy Fallon, promoting a surprisingly tasteless innovation!