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Five years on, how much closer are we to the reality in Her?

We ask an expert how far-fetched it is that we’ll soon be falling in love with our computer operating systems, like in Spike Jonze’s 2013 sci-fi classic

What does the advancement of AI mean for the future of the arts, music, and fashion? Will robots come for our creative industries? Could a machine ever dream like a human can? This week on Dazed, with our new campaign AGE OF AI, we’re aiming to find out. 

Five years ago, Spike Jonze imagined a world in which humans could form loving, emotional relationships with computer operating systems (OS). Set in the near-future, Jonze’s captivating film Her is part science-fiction, part stark reality. Ultimately, it’s a fairly traditional (and pretty tragic) love story: boy meets girl, girl helps boy out of depression, boy falls in love with girl, girl leaves earth with other AIs after they create a hyper-intelligent OS. It’s practically a Penguin classic.

Watching the film in 2018, it no longer feels like quite such a distant future. AI has spawned a strange new breed of celebrity, including icon Sophia the Robot, who strives “to become an empathetic robot”, and Instagram model Lil Miquela, who had an emotional realisation in April when she asked “I’m not a human, but am I still a person?” Affective computing has also come on leaps and bounds over the past ten years, with therapy chatbots like Woebot supposedly able to monitor your mood, talk to you about mental health and provide useful tools based on your needs.

The effectiveness of these apps in comparison to face-to-face therapy is still questionable, though, with some experts worried they are too limited to be of any significant use for those struggling with their mental health. The future depicted in Her feels both much closer and impossibly far away. So, with young people already using apps to combat loneliness, how plausible is the idea that we might eventually form relationships with these apps?

To celebrate the fifth anniversary of the film, we spoke to Björn Schuller, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at Imperial College London, about whether AI relationships could ever eclipse human relationships, and just how scared we should be. Here’s what we learned.


Okay, it’s not necessarily the case that your microwave could break your heart any minute, but according to Schuller, the basic technology seen in Her actually dates back to the late 00s. “The real question now is, what kind of detail are we looking into?” Schuller asks. “For example, we have to think about how autonomous the real (OS) would be in the near future? Would it be something that takes Alexa or Siri to a level where you’re not just having command and control over natural language, but you’re actually having a continuous, flowing conversation? Because that we can do already.”

Emotional support-style robots are already being utilised in care homes for the elderly, while the use of therapy chatbots continues to rise – these types of technology not only listen to users, but can supposedly learn from conversations and become more specific to an individual’s needs over time. Schuller is confident that even this technology will be much further advanced in the next few years. “New start-ups are popping up much quicker than they ever did before, and once the first application is used in scale, it will happen very quickly and improve rapidly.”


Given that human beings are generally quite emotionally repressed anyway – just me? – this isn’t particularly surprising news. “AIs will very clearly become more emotionally intelligent than humans,” Schuller tells Dazed. “Firstly, because they can perfectly control themselves. They can have unshared attention on different channels, so can watch your face while listening to your voice without losing focus on either. Second of all, they have infinite memory, so can memorise every detail about you and become the perfect listener. They also get data from millions of observations – a human being can never get that much experience.”

“In a few months we could actually have a dialogue system with social and emotional competence, which gets your emotion, and your personality, and therefore knows how to talk in order to be liked by you” – Björn Schuller

Effectively, an AI can give you all the attention you’ve ever needed, will never forget your birthday, and won’t tune out when you start talking about your DJ nights in Dalston. But it’s not just the AI’s listening skills that could make it more emotionally intelligent, as Schuller explains. “In a few months we could actually have a dialogue system with social and emotional competence, which gets your emotion, and your personality, and therefore knows how to talk in order to be liked by you.”

So, in the not-so-distant future, AIs will be able to emotionally manipulate us – great! “Things like charisma, patience, and empathy can all be simulated (by an AI),” continues Schuller. “They can follow, or mimic your speech and your information much more perfectly than a human ever could.” The key word here, though, is simulation. Whether this performance of empathy could equate to actual empathy, or whether an OS could ever truly replace the feeling of being understood by another human, is another question entirely. 


In Her, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) – the AI operating system that protagonist Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with – learns to enhance her emotional capability as the film goes on, even seemingly being able to feel sexually aroused, despite having no physical body. According to Schuller, this ability to express and learn deep emotions is more philosophical than you might realise. “The difference between strong AI and weak AI is whether it learns to have feelings, or just learns to show feelings.”

Although AIs might eventually be more “emotionally intelligent” than humans, does it make a difference if this emotion is shown, rather than actually experienced? Can AIs ever really learn to feel emotions?

“The aim of strong AI is to actually have feelings, or intelligence”, Schuller tells Dazed. “Whereas the weak AI – what we have today – is using a code that’s inspired by having emotions, but at the moment we don’t care philosophically if those are actually feelings or not.”

Schuller continues: “Machines can learn from data to have certain behaviour, but it would hardly be consciousness. Although it will happen, and has already happened, that AI will start to show features that we didn’t program. It will find some states which you could relate to – it will laugh, it will have pain, but it will remain a philosophical question about how real that pain or laughter is.”


Although this seems near-impossible, when you think about shows like Catfish: The TV Show, it doesn’t actually come as much of a shock. “If you think about the way people can believe they’re in love with chatbots,” says Schuller (see: this scientist’s miserable story), “You could say (AI replacing human relationships) is already a reality.” People constantly fall in love with messages on their phone – yes, they believe there’s a person sending them, but they don’t need the human contact in order to form lasting a bond. 

“If the chatbots are well-programmed,” continues Schuller, “they show empathy and interest, so it would be easy to manipulate a person into liking the software simply by pretending to care.”

“Things like charisma, patience, and empathy can all be stimulated (by an AI). They can follow, or mimic your speech and your information much more perfectly than a human ever could” – Björn Schuller

Although users would be aware they were interacting with an AI rather than a real human being, Schuller doesn’t think this would necessarily matter. “It can seem perfectly human to you. Yes, it would have perfect control of what it’s doing, but to you it (would) appear entirely human. I think the idea that human users could fall in love with it is not far-fetched at all, though whether people will start spending more time with AI than humans is up for debate.”


I know what you’re thinking: will even my operating system eventually leave me broken-hearted and alone? Probably, TBH.

“Everything we’re inventing, we should be afraid of,” Schuller tells Dazed. “You can easily think of ways you can misuse new technologies. Think of the evil (AI) application of breaking hearts on purpose, which would of course be used as a way to make money. In the worst of cases, the service would be exposed to teenagers or lonely people, and would stop talking to you once it’s cashed in. If you think of that, then unfortunately we could very likely see AI breaking hearts as a way to make developers rich.”

Although it’s not all doom and gloom – Schuller doesn’t necessarily believe this alternate world would actually eclipse our current reality, even if it has the capabilities to. “When you fall out of love with your AI, you’re leaving the bubble of delusion because you realise it’s just data and code”, Schuller asserts.

So, the technology from Her definitely isn’t as science-fiction as you might think, with AI apps and software already tapping into a market of therapy and profiting off loneliness. As AI technology continues to advance at speed, there’s a very real possibility that the plot of Her could soon become a reality, at least online – but a dystopian world where we forgo human relationships for AI relationships? TBC.