“Her,” written and directed by Spike Jonze, came out 10 years ago this fall. Courtesy Warner Bros.

The beautiful, uncanny future of “Her”

Meghan McCarty Carino Jul 10, 2023
“Her,” written and directed by Spike Jonze, came out 10 years ago this fall. Courtesy Warner Bros.

Econ Extra Credit is teaming up with “Marketplace Tech” this month to examine the artificial intelligence boom through an influential AI film: 2013’s “Her.” Subscribe here to get the whole series in your inbox. Acting host Meghan McCarty Carino kicks us off.

Depending on whom you talk to, and we’ve been talking to a lot of people about it over on “Marketplace Tech,” AI-powered tools like ChatGPT and Stable Diffusion could usher in a productivity boom that lifts standards of livingdemocratizes creativity and helps solve our world’s thorniest problems … or unleash an information apocalypse, lead to mass unemploymentbroken social trust and eventually human extinction.

When we were thinking of a movie or TV show that could help us explore these themes, there was no shortage of options indulging that dark side. We decided to go in a different direction — perhaps as a tonic for our own prevailing anxieties.

“Her,” written and directed by Spike Jonze, came out 10 years ago this fall. The movie feels uncannily prescient now, with its twee take on AI technology:

In a near-future Los Angeles, “Her” is a thought-provoking and emotionally captivating romantic drama that explores the profound connection between humans and artificial intelligence. The film follows the life of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely and introverted writer who finds solace and companionship in an advanced operating system named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).

And yes, just for fun, I asked ChatGPT to write that synopsis. Because while they don’t seem quite as reliable or “emotionally captivating” as ScarJo’s Samantha, our current large language models can look eerily similar (though that doesn’t mean they’re sentient).

The world of “Her” is not some futuristic techno-dystopia. It’s decidedly gentle and human-centered, maybe more so than our own world — definitely more so than modern-day Los Angeles, where I live. 

It’s populated by people who, judging by their tastefully appointed apartments with expansive city views, are making good money doing creative work. Theodore is a professional letter writer, turning simple prompts from paying customers into heartfelt prose addressed to loved ones. It’s a job that, while somewhat crassly outsourcing emotional expression, seems to reveal a persistent premium on human skills. That’s not what you’d expect in a world of highly capable bots.

Rather than replacing Theodore, Samantha’s supersophisticated operating system acts more like the AI assistant. More C-3PO, less Terminator. Apple’s Siri was just a couple years old when “Her” came out, and Microsoft and Google are promoting their own AI-powered assistants these days. 

But of course, Samantha becomes much more than an assistant to Theodore. The film engages honestly and thoughtfully with questions about what it means to interact intimately with technology that is so life-like and attentive, it can seem to fulfill our human need for connection… until it can’t.

In our real-world epidemic of loneliness, technology like social media is a double-edged sword. Now, advances in artificial intelligence hold similar promise and peril.

We hope you’ll join us as we delve into the familiar but slightly off-kilter world of “Her,” and what it reveals about our fears, and our hopes, around artificial intelligence. Even if those hopes end up little more than a wish-fulfillment fantasy, as many regard Samantha.

“Her” is available to stream on Criterion Channel with a subscription. You can also rent or buy it on many platforms, including Prime VideoApple TVVudu and YouTube.

After you watch, send us your thoughts and questions at extracredit@marketplace.org or reply to this email!

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