Computer Programs and Humans in the movie “Her”

Computer Programs and Humans in the movie “Her”

by Gabriel Muniz

her-movie-poster

Machine-mediated modes of communication like emails, text messages, tweets, Facebook posts, among others, have done much to depersonalize the way we communicate in the 21st century. The ease with which users can share information, post pictures, and update profiles has, with the assistance of ever-advancing smartphones, laid the groundwork for a world where humans can live dual lives—their public person and their online persona. Social networking sites and online gaming are two arenas where this phenomenon is especially clear to see.

Both allow for the careful creation of a unique personality—games allow for avatars, figures representing particular persons in computer games, while social sites allow users to craft a more socially acceptable image. In both instances, the more users remain enchanted with earning upgrades for their avatar, or the most Facebook “likes” among friends, the more the line between the real world and online amusement becomes blurred. Human relationships, said to be enlivened by the constant communication with significant others, instead suffer. Users end up as the title of Sherry Turkle’s book puts it: “Alone Together, expecting more from technology and less from each other.”

The recently-released film “Her” explores such a theme. A science-fiction romantic comedy drama chronicling the life of a man who develops a relationship with an intelligent computer operating system (OS) that has a female voice and personality, the film explores the degree to which technology can bring reassuring comfort, and at the same time, unintentionally cause self-alienation and relational friction. A New York Times review says the following about the movie: “At once a brilliant conceptual gag and a deeply sincere romance, “Her” is the unlikely yet completely plausible love story about a man, who sometimes resembles a machine, and an operating system, who very much suggests a living woman” (Dargis).

In the movie “Her,” the protagonist Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix), while working for a business that composes heartfelt, intimate letters for people who are unwilling or unable to write letters of personal nature, is himself a lonely introverted man. In private, like a recluse in the real world who creates an alter personality with which to use online, Theodore spends most of his time at home playing a 3D video game projected into his living room where he can do what he fails to do in public: explore and interact with others. Theodore is later driven to purchase a newly-released operating system with which to curb his loneliness and heartache (he is in the midst of tragic divorce as well). An irony worth noting is the fact that Theodore cannot do what the OS he falls in love with can do; namely, adapt and evolve. Theodore fails to confront the changing and challenging circumstances in his life, instead finding refuge, and eventually love, in an operating system that names itself Samantha.

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The growing importance of blogs By Terrell Ward Bynum

Three or four years ago, there was no such thing as a “blog;” but today blogs have become very influential components of the Internet, and their importance is growing exponentially. The word “blog” is a shortened form of “web log,” and it stands for a web site that keeps a log (much like a diary) of people’s thoughts, their actions, and their reactions to other people’s thoughts and actions. Today, there are millions of blogs on the Internet.

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Artificial intelligence begins to grow up By Terrell Ward Bynum

In the 1950s and 1960s, overconfident computer scientists, who were working in the new field of “artificial intelligence” (AI), predicted that computerized robots and other “artificially intelligent” devices soon would catch up to – or even surpass – human beings in a wide diversity of skills and activities. Within two or three decades, said the most optimistic AI researchers, artificially intelligent devices would be able to pass the famous “Turing Test” by conversing with humans using teletype machines so successfully that the humans would not realize that they were talking to computers rather than to people. Some predictions were quite remarkable: robots would be on the moon or Mars or other planets, deciding for themselves where to go and what to do, carrying on conversations with humans back on earth – robot butlers would fetch and carry objects, cook meals, and clean the house for their human owners – AI doctors would diagnose diseases, prescribe and administer medicines and therapies. At the peak of this optimism in the 1970s, a number of AI companies were founded and invested many millions of dollars in various AI projects. By the end of the 1980s, however, none of the optimistic predictions had come true, and most of the AI companies had gone out of business. An “AI Winter” had set in!

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File-sharing By Richard Volkman

In their continuing battle against online piracy through peer-to-peer networks, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has launched another round of lawsuits against users of internet file sharing. While it remains to be seen what the outcome of these suits will bring, there is a good chance that they will hasten the end of a business model firmly rooted in the bad old days before information wanted to be free. If this turns out to be the case, then the RIAA actions may have the ironic result of delivering what music fans say they want – the ability to get just the music they want at a fair price with the convenience and selection that online browsing can uniquely offer.

The catch is that this will also remove any excuse for stealing music online.

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Greased property: File-Swapping Online Gets a Boost from a U.S. Judge By Terrell Ward Bynum

Information and communication technology (ICT) is so powerful and so flexible that it enables people to do all kinds of things that could not have been done before. Because they were not previously done, the question arises whether it is ethical to do them and what the rules and limitations should be. (James Moor, in his 1985 article “What Is Computer Ethics?” called this sort of problem a “policy vacuum.”)

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Fair play? does not play fair about video games By Richard Volkman

Are video games sending kids the wrong messages about race and gender? A new study of popular video games purports to show that “the messages found in video games are indeed cause for concern.” Unfortunately, the methodology of the study is deeply flawed in both its design and its execution. “Fair Play? Violence, Gender and Race in Video Games” raises important questions about the content of video games. It is a matter of serious concern to ponder how well women and people of color are treated by the digital culture emerging around us. But the study draws highly dubious and politically charged conclusions from absurdly bad evidence. It adds nothing to our understanding of the digital culture and even distracts us from the real message of that culture.

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Of standards and monopolies By Richard Volkman

While U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ponders the remedies facing Microsoft as a consequence of its practices in restraint of trade, the software giant has once again courted controversy, this time by excluding users of competitors’ products from certain online content. And once again, Microsoft’s best defense is to appeal to the value of “standards.” While there is no doubt that widely accepted standards offer real value to consumers, it is difficult to take Microsoft’s defense seriously in light of its own past history.

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Napster – a tiny sample of the information revolution By Terrell Ward Bynum

The previous comment posted in this series – “Will the Internet Kill the Geese that Lay Our Golden Eggs?” – [see the archives of this series] concerned the heated public controversy about Napster and similar computer programs. Such programs enable individuals to swap computerized music files and other computer files over the Internet without paying a royalty to copyright holders. This is a follow-up to my previous posting.

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Will the internet kill the geese that lay our golden eggs? By Terrell Ward Bynum

In an op-ed article in the New York Times (“There’s No Free Hollywood,” June 21, 2000, p. A23), Jack Valenti – Chairman of the Motion Picture Association – expressed alarm that new software programs [for example, like Napster and Freenet] are making it easier and easier to download “free” copies of music, films, videos, books and software off the Internet. This new capability, he worries, will end up destroying any incentive that musicians, film makers, writers and artists may have to continue creating their valuable products for the world. Mr. Valenti calls those who make and use software programs to download “free” copyrighted materials “thieves,” “plunderers,” “pilfering zealots,” and “Internet marauders.” He asks:

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