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Can ‘Her’ Happen? The Experts Weigh In

Three futurist thinkers talk about whether an operating system like Samantha in Spike Jonze’s film ‘Her’ can become a reality

Jonathan Ringen Feb 12, 2014
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Joaquin Phoenix in 'Her'. Photo: Warner Bros Pictures

Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Her’. Photo: Warner Bros Pictures


In Spike Jonze’s new movie, Her, a lonely single guy named Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with a superintelligent, highly empathetic operating system named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). The film is a strange, heartstring-pulling love story and a visual feast of retro-futuristic design ”“ but could the film’s world become a reality, and is it even one we’d want to live in? Will artificial intelligence be sexy like Samantha or terrifying like the Terminator? Or is the idea of a computer with human emotions pure science fiction? Three futurist thinkers have the answers.


Ray Kurzweil. Photo: Flickr user: null0/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Ray Kurzweil. Photo: Flickr user: null0/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Ray Kurzweil

Author, technology philosopher

In my timeline, Samantha-level AI will appear around 2029. But it’s not going to be us versus them, or unenhanced humans versus the machines. Whether the machines are enemies or lovers, we’re going to integrate with them. We’ll be enhanced ”“ and I would argue we’re already enhanced with the devices we have. We’ve already extended our mental capacities with computers. Even if they aren’t yet inside our bodies and brains, that’s an arbitrary distinction. I wrote my last book in a fraction of the time of my first book, just because of all these technologies we have. And they’re getting closer and closer ”“ there are a couple of billion smartphones on the planet. By the 2030s, when computers are the size of blood cells, they’ll go inside our bodies and brains quite effortlessly and uninvasively.

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Jaron Lanier. Photo: Flickr user: vanz/ Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Jaron Lanier. Photo: Flickr user: vanz/ Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Jaron Lanier

Virtual reality pioneer

People are already willing to believe that Facebook, Google or Netflix know us ”“ but that’s just simple code running a confidence game. So who controls Samantha? Why does the company that makes her exist? And is Samantha even real, in the sense of a real artificial intelligence? Just because you believe the machine is alive doesn’t mean it actually is. Maybe there’s a room full of guys who are the puppet masters, scripting Samantha moment to moment. Or suppose that Samantha is a scam involving an actress working for criminals somewhere. There will never be a reliable “consciousness meter” to determine if supposed AIs are real, which means it’s up to us to decide whether or not to have faith in them. I’ve always argued that the more pragmatic choice is to not believe.


Douglas Rushkoff. Photo: Eatagency

Douglas Rushkoff. Photo: Eatagency

Douglas Rushkoff

Author, cyberspace theorist

Who in this strange, sick society wouldn’t want a Stepford Entity? Especially if it’s Scarlett Johansson! But in the movie ”“ and much of the scientific community ”“ there’s this underlying, unquestioned presumption that as technology gets more complex, consciousness will emerge. That our robots or nanos or computers or programs are going to achieve this singularity point where they become conscious, and then surpass us. But remember how badly people responded when Dell hired people in India to do customer service? Even college-educated, English-speaking citizens of India couldn’t relate to Americans well enough to satisfy our customer-service needs. That makes me think that the kinds of fantasies we’re talking about are hundreds of years away, rather than decades.

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