Her (and the Turing test and expressing humanity)

her movie

Last evening I saw Spike Jonze’s new motion picture ‘Her’, the melancholy drenched tale of a lonely man who falls in love with his highly intelligent operating system. While Joaquin Phoenix exhibited some fantastic talent in his authentic expression of a wide range of emotions, the movie does become monotonous in only having his singular being as the focal point. I respect Jonze’s vision of not producing another film involving interaction with a digitally simulated entity, thus allowing the audience to truly feel as if we are witnessing an artificial intelligence and not a human being, but that is the precarious path the film attempts to navigate: creating a dynamic enough vocally established character (Samantha) and not showing her body as a robotized automaton so that we can conceive of Phoenix actually falling in love with her, but still convincing the audience that she is indeed not a human. Because I never saw a physical manifestation truly confirming that Samantha is not a human being, such as by showing an android, in the back of my mind (so to speak) I always felt that she was a human. That Phoenix spoke to Samantha through a headset and directed his attention at an iPhone-like device only made me think that he was having a Skype date with a human woman who we are never shown.

I suppose what was so confusing was the humanity conveyed in Samantha’s voice. There wasn’t the presence of stuttering

Get used to seeing this guy

Get used to seeing this guy

lifeless inflection common to the portrayal of artificial intelligence in movies; there was effortless expression of thoughts in the cadence and timbre that comes naturally to human beings. Perhaps what this suggests is an underlying bias that only human beings can express humanity; after all, such a statement sounds tautologically true. But does it not seem possible that an artificial intelligence could learn to express humanity?

Expressing Humanness to Pass the Turing Test
Ray Kurzweil and Mitchell Kapor have wagered a bet as to whether a computer will pass the Turing test by 2029 (click here for a background on the Turing test). Kapor thinks that it is unlikely that a computer will ever pass the Turing test because to do so would require the computer to express humanness. He holds that a computer will not be able to express humanness because a computer cannot experience humanness and cannot acquire knowledge of humanness as it is not written down in ways that can be absorbed by computers. Kapor puts his point thusly:

Computers don’t have anything resembling a human body, sense organs, feelings, or awareness after all. Without these, it cannot have human experiences, especially of the ones which reflect our fullest nature, as above. Each of knows what it is like to be in a physical environment; we know what things look, sound, smell, taste, and feel like. Such experiences form the basis of agency, memory and identity. We can and do speak of all this in a multitude of meaningful ways to each other. Without human experiences, a computer cannot fool a smart judge bent on exposing it by probing its ability to communicate about the quintessentially human. Additionally, part of the burden of proof for supporters of intelligent machines is to develop an adequate account of how a computer would acquire the knowledge it would be required to have to pass the test. Ray Kurzweil’s approach relies on an automated process of knowledge acquisition via input of scanned books and other printed matter. However, I assert that the fundamental mode of learning of human beings is experiential. Book learning is a layer on top of that. Most knowledge, especially that having to do with physical, perceptual, and emotional experience is not explicit, never written down. It is tacit. We cannot say all we know in words or how we know it.

Let us standardize Kapor’s argument to assess its soundness. Kapor’s argument can be standardized thusly,

  1. If the Turing test tests for intelligence then the Turing test tests for the ability of the subject to synthesis disparate areas of knowledge into statements.
  2. If the Turing test tests for the ability of the subject to synthesis disparate areas of knowledge into statements then the subject must have knowledge of all areas of knowledge.
  3. One area of knowledge is knowledge of human experience.
  4. Therefore, in order to pass the Turing test one must have knowledge of human experiences.
  5. So, if an entity passes the Turing test then that entity has knowledge of human experiences.
  6. A computer cannot have human experiences and it cannot acquire knowledge of them through absorption of information (it cannot have knowledge of human experiences).
  7. Therefore, a computer cannot pass the Turing test (modus tollens from 5 and 6).
  8. Thus, a computer will not pass the Turing test by 2029.

This argument is neither sound nor valid because premise six contains a proposition that logically implies the contradiction of the conclusion. As such, the argument is invalid as stated because the truth of the premises does not guarantee the truth of the conclusion as the premises could be true and the conclusion false.

The proposition in question is the second half of the conjunctive statement, that being that a computer cannot acquire

Is 'humanness' expressed in literature?

Is ‘humanness’ expressed in literature?

knowledge of human experiences through absorption of information. Kapor’s reasoning for this proposition is that, “Most knowledge, especially that having to do with physical, perceptual, and emotional experience is not explicit, never written down. It is tacit. We cannot say all we know in words or how we know it”. So the reason why a computer cannot acquire knowledge of humanness is because we have not written it down for them to absorb, and the reason why we as humans have not written it down is because “we cannot say all we know in words or how we know it”. Therefore, Kapor is committed to the postulation that computers cannot express humanness because they cannot acquire knowledge of humanness as humans have not written it down because it is inexpressible. If humans were able to express humanness then they would write it down, in which case a computer could gain knowledge of humanness and therefore could express humanness. Thus, in order for Kapor to maintain that computers cannot express humanness it must be the case that humans cannot express humanness.

Bender expresses a whole lot of humanness.

Bender expresses a whole lot of humanness.

Such a commitment contradicts Kapor’s conclusion as his entire argument is to prove that a computer cannot pass the Turing test because it cannot express humanness, logically implying that humans can pass the Turing test because we can express humanness. Yet it is logically impossible that the reason why humans can pass the Turing test while computers cannot is because computers cannot express humanness because humans cannot express humanness. To be charitable to Kapor’s argument we will hold that indeed computers cannot express humanness because humans cannot express humanness. However, if the ability to express humanness is the deciding factor for passing the Turing test and neither humans nor computers can express humanness then computers have just as good a chance of passing the Turing test as humans. Therefore it seems likely that a computer will pass the Turing test by 2029.

Thus, if humanness is not expressible then computers will have just as much of a chance of passing the Turing test as humans. Moreover, if humanness is expressible then computers will be able to absorb knowledge of humanness and express humanness to the effect of passing the Turing test. So regardless of whether humanness is expressible it follows that a computer will pass the Turing test by the year 2029.

Samantha and the Expression of Humanness
So it seems that whether or not humanness is expressible a computer will be able to pass the Turing test in the near future, and thus, computers will be able to convince us that they are indeed intelligent. Samantha clearly expresses humanness, which is the reason why I was unconvinced that Samantha was not a human. What this suggests is that if a computer becomes capable of expressing humanness then it will undoubtedly pass the Turing test, for as Her shows, if a computer can express humanness, it will have to convince me that it not a human.

That's 'her' propped up on his bag.

That’s ‘her’ propped up on his bag.

General Notes
For the record, the film was good, the most satisfying accomplishment of the picture was establishing an atmospheric tangibility of near-future-ness that felt real, allowing the audience to be welcomed into a time period when artificial intelligence is as complex as shown. As such, the tone of the film was well focused, and there were no surprises in mood and temperament, creating a depressing and melancholic tactile experience.

Perhaps the most interesting theme of the movie was that technology has numbed humans to the point that technology itself is more excited about life and existence than mankind. In this extremely feasible near future, humans have become isolated by their technology, rather than brought together by it, and allow their technology to live for them, which their technology is more than happy to do, whether or not this is genuine excitement or mere programming. The film also touches on that age old adage that you must learn to love yourself before you can love another, as Phoenix’s love for Samantha is deeply narcissistic, but does allow him to accept himself and move on to improve his relationships with other human beings. Nothing too uniquely profound, but hey, it’s a self-love story, and there aren’t enough of those.

7 out of 10.

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  1. #1 by oliviamariecasey on January 12, 2014 - 10:21 pm

    Interesting article. It never ceases to amaze me how interested people are in the Turing test. Most of my thoughts on the Turing test in the past have only been my intuitions in the past but it’s nice to approach it from logic as you did here. It will be interesting too see the results in the near future!
    Also, saw an ad for the movie, looked pretty crazy! Could see in the trailers what you meant about Samantha having no body, interesting choice that clearly has consequences!

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on January 13, 2014 - 9:49 pm

      Yes, I think that that they decided to not portray the AI as an automaton did create some fascinating consequences for how the audience feels about the romance.

      People have latched onto the appeal of the Turing test for many reasons, but a likely one is that it is one of the first intuitively clear experiments that would prove a philosophical theory of mind true or false (functionalism as the underlying philosophy of mind that allows for artificial intelligence). So it is interesting what the metaphilosophical implications of the Turing test are. It might finally allow the philosopher to say that there is a consensus in philosophy, which there has been little of, save for in the field of epistemology when Gettier trounced the theory of knowledge as justified true belief, and that such knowledge has been empirically verified, thus suggesting a win for empiricism over rationalism in the age old debate (for the record I am a full blooded rationalist).

  2. #3 by Chip on January 14, 2014 - 8:39 pm

    Might wanna take it easy with the “thus”…s.

    • #4 by ausomeawestin on January 14, 2014 - 8:48 pm

      Thanks for the substantive, and thus, insightful criticism, Chip.

  3. #5 by Chip on January 14, 2014 - 8:50 pm

    Witty.

  4. #6 by CMrok93 on January 20, 2014 - 11:44 pm

    I’ve got to say, this movie really struck a chord with me. Made me cry, made me laugh, but most of all, it made me realize how powerful having the ability to love is. Good review.

    • #7 by ausomeawestin on January 20, 2014 - 11:51 pm

      Thanks for the kind words! Yes, I think that is an important idea to take away from the movie. Artificial intelligence might quickly surpass us in pure computing power, but it seems there might be practices of which we will always be the superior, that of expressing love.

  5. #8 by rung2diotimasladder on September 30, 2014 - 2:05 pm

    “Perhaps the most interesting theme of the movie was that technology has numbed humans to the point that technology itself is more excited about life and existence than mankind.”

    This seems to be the case at the beginning when we see Theodore ordering his generic computer voice to “play melancholy song” and “read email” and then he uses it to have terrible isolating phone sex. Later, when we meet his shiny new OS, Samantha, we find that, ironically, it’s technology that teaches him how to love again. He learns the limitations of his previous ideas about love and, when Samantha abandons him along with all the other OSes, he comes to appreciate more deeply what was there all along.

    What really struck a chord with me was the anti-Luddite depiction of technology. Even their devices seemed a little less sterile—more human—than our own, including the “handwritten” font Theodore uses at work and the picture frame screens on his desktop computers. The future of technology is seen here as bringing us closer to our emotional lives, but it seems we must go through the sterile, isolating stuff first.

    • #9 by ausomeawestin on September 30, 2014 - 8:38 pm

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      I think a big question posed by the film is whether machinery becoming less machine and more human actually enriches the lives of humans. Early in the movie the suggestion is “no, robots becoming more human alienates humans from their own humanity’, but at the end the conclusion seems to be “yes, robots becoming more human brings them closer to their own humanity”. But I actually doubt this conclusion, because it is only when Theodore really begins to understand that Samantha is a different type of being (she can talk to millions of people at the same time, she wants to acquire all knowledge, etc. etc.) that he gains back his humanity. That is, only when Theodore understands Samantha as not being a human, and thus humanity as being something that uniquely belongs to humans, does he grasp his own humanity, and begins to live again. So I think the conclusion of the movie is that humanizing technology does not bring us closer to our humanity or our emotions. Whether technology in general brings us closer to our humanity is a separate issue.

      Then again, I haven’t seen the movie in a while, and I know you recently, so my interpretation might be quite unreliable. Either way, thanks for the thoughtful comments.

      • #10 by rung2diotimasladder on September 30, 2014 - 11:55 pm

        “only when Theodore understands Samantha as not being a human, and thus humanity as being something that uniquely belongs to humans, does he grasp his own humanity, and begins to live again.”

        These events happen at the same time, but I understood it another way. Samantha, despite being non-human, teaches him how to rise to a higher emotional plane. Now, this emotional plane is limited by his humanity, but now he expresses wonder at the world. Remember before he said he didn’t think there were any new experiences to be had? Well, she shows him he’s wrong, and he has so much more to learn.

  6. #11 by rung2diotimasladder on October 1, 2014 - 12:10 am

    By the way, I feel remiss in not thanking you for reading my extremely long post! I notice that you’ve interpreted the movie more skeptically than I have by not taking for granted that the OS has real emotions. You may be right that I haven’t addressed that sufficiently. And being such a novel idea, perhaps I’ve moved too quickly to take it as a premiss of the film that can be pushed aside.

    And you’re also spot on to bring up these questions of whether technology moves us closer to interactions with each other or whether it actually distances. I don’t know whether the movie answered it one way or the other. It feels ambiguous to me. Maybe it was supposed to?

    • #12 by ausomeawestin on October 1, 2014 - 6:22 pm

      It was my pleasure to read your post, I, like you, enjoy thinking, writing and reading about the philosophical questions posed by films, and it was a joy to read your thoughts. Thanks for reading my entry, as well!

      Responding to your points in order:

      I think your interpretation of the film as being about non-human beings showing us the way to a higher emotional plane is very plausible. I think it likely that your interpretation is more true to the intentions of Jonze. I doubt he meant the piece as a discussion on the Turing test.

      My piece might have tended more skeptical because in thinking about the movie I immediately started thinking about the Turing test, which is a sort of skeptical position to begin with, so I suppose that got me into the skeptical frame of mind.

      I think you’re right that the film didn’t have its sights set on addressing whether technology will bring us all together or divide us. It seems likely that Jonze only (but not merely) intended to make an original and provocative love story.

      Thanks again for responding, it’s been a pleasure chatting about such an interesting movie.

      • #13 by rung2diotimasladder on October 2, 2014 - 8:54 am

        I’ve enjoyed discussing this with you too! (And learning the term, functionalism).

        Well, it’s okay if your post’s goal was not to interpret the movie but to use it as a jumping off point for a different discussion. I like seeing an argument broken down into syllogistic form! And I think it’s pretty natural with this movie especially to wonder about the possibilities of such an AI. I must admit I’m pretty skeptical, but if rocks could talk like Samantha, I’d treat them the same as I would any other human being! (I wonder if they’d complain about getting kicked around.) 🙂

        It always makes me sad to see people go to movies like this and walk out of the theater saying nothing about it. I can’t imagine not talking about it, but it’s often hard to find someone interested in discussion.

        Thanks so much! It has been very pleasurable indeed.

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