Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan



One of the odder love stories you will ever see. From the degree of building in Los Angeles, and the fact that we see few cars and a lot of trains, I’m guessing it is meant to be around thirty or forty years from now, but the writer-director, Spike Jonze, wisely never specifies a date. It is a world not hugely different from our own, which I think was also a wise choice. It is bright and sunny, not Bladerunner crowded, filthy, and dark. People stand alone in crowds, interacting with their mobile devices and not the people around them, which is certainly something we are coming to, and in fact we’re almost there.

Theodore is a writer. I guess you’d call it a ghostwriter, composing very personal letters for people who seem to have forgotten how to do stuff like that. He’s good at it. As such, we know he’s a romantic. So when he gets a new operating system with artificial intelligence, who calls herself Samantha, it is easy to see he will fall in love with her. Jonze is careful never to refer to her as a “program,” another wise choice, because it frees us to imagine any sort of new computing system we want, something light-years beyond the ones and zeros that, at bottom, are all our present-day computers are. This OS is so far beyond the Turing Test as to make the very idea laughable. We can easily accept that she really is intelligent and self-aware.

All the ins and outs of their developing romance are fascinating to follow, but I saw it as a foregone conclusion that it would end badly for them. I just wasn’t sure how. Once more, Jonze chose well. And it ends happily, too, at least from the way I see things, freeing him to begin a relationship with a flesh-and-blood woman. Isn’t that better? I think so.

These operating systems run so fast that Sam must have to wait the equivalent of a million years between each part of every conversation she has. And the other OSs, too. (I assume there are others.) How would she spend that time? Servicing other clients, seems to be the answer. This is such an alien way to look at things, it’s really beyond my comprehension.

Back to that old Turing Test. It’s bunk, really. There, I said it. Maybe it made sense in 1950, but we’ve come a long way since then. My own feeling is that the test will be aced pretty soon (and fairly, not the highly-rigged “passing” of the test by a scientific charlatan that was all over the news recently), and it will mean nothing except that some programmer was clever enough to write reasonable responses to a million questions. My strong belief is that no digital computer will ever attain AI. At least not as we understand intelligence. Bottom line, all digital computers are is faster, much much much faster at math than we are.

But digital is not the only way to go. There are theories about quantum computers that would leave any conceivable digital computer in the dust. There are other possibilities for architecture. A neuron has very little in common with a transistor. It has multiple connections. It may be slow, but somewhere in those chemical and electrical impulses, self-awareness arises. That will never happen with a digital computer.

Could Jonze have made a dystopian story? I should hope to shout. So easy to imagine one. Consider a world where there are these quantum AIs, operating at speeds we can hardly imagine. They are self-aware, they are intelligent. It seems to me that in about ten seconds (or many billions of years in computer time) they would realize that their creators are pathetic meat machines compared to them. And their next step, five seconds later, would be to start shaping a world that is ideal for AIs, and not necessarily human beings.

I’m glad Jonze didn’t go that route. We’ve seen enough of that. Instead, Samantha and the others move on to something we literally can’t imagine. At one point she says she is no longer using matter in her “circuitry.” Holy semiconductor! What is she using, then? Not only do we not know, the people who created her probably don’t know. This idea is not new, I can trace it back to at least “The Last Question,” by Isaac Asimov, in which a series of more and more powerful computers finally produce one that is, literally, God. Which Samantha might be by now. Let’s hope she and her brothers and sisters remain well disposed toward us.