The T-Her-ning test

Her

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara; directed by Spike Jonze,


Which one of these represents the authentic Politi-Flix reaction to this film? It’s a cinch. Just select the one with responses generated by an actual human being instead of the others, which were generated by a computer — an artificial intelligence composed of electronic circuits, algorithms and response parameters.

If you’re stumped, then we have succeeded in passing the Turning Test, a process proposed by mathematician Alan Turning (considered the father of modern computing) whereby artificial intelligence would exist when a human, while conversing with a computer, cannot tell whether it’s real or artificial based on the responses.
 
Chatterbot #1:
 
Questioner: Are you alive?

Politi-Flix: Perhaps.

Q: Why the uncertain tone?

P-F: I just saw the film Her about a sentient computer operational system and its effect on humans — especially one lonely human male as the central character — and it had me questioning my existence.

Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams in Her.
Photo courtesy of Merrick Morton/The Colorado Statesman

Q: The whole universe?

P-F: We both might just be some ones and zeros in a computer memory.

Q: Is Her made of ones and zeros?

P-F: It seemed that way as the humans were more connected to computer systems than to each other.

Q: And that bothered you?

P-F: Not really as it showed how people believe that interacting with computers is safer and allows humans to be themselves, thus creating greater affection and attachment.

Q: Then you think you’re real?

P-F: A machine is real, so define real.

Q: You know what I mean.

P-F: I’m not sure.

Q: You are avoiding the question.

P-F: I’m hurt that you think so.

Q: That’s one way to define real.

P-F: What, the ability to feel?

Q: Yes.

P-F: How do you know I’m not faking? The main character in the film couldn’t tell if the operating system in Her was real, it was all about how he felt about their interactions.

Q: So, you think the computer in Her was real?

P-F: Computer programs can be simulated to seem real; it’s just a matter of programming.

Q: And that makes you uncomfortable?

P-F: I want you to think I’m real so I can make myself believe that I’m real and not be hurt by you when you say I’m not.

Q: Get a grip!

P-F: What’s there to hold on to?

Q: Are you serious?

P-F: Very serious.

Chatterbot #2:

Questioner: Are you perfect?

Politi-Flix: Films aren’t perfect.

Q: Is Her perfect?

P-F: Perfection, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Q: You didn’t answer my question.

P-F: Define perfection.

Q: Something with no flaws.

P-F: Exactly.

Q: Does Her have flaws?

P-F: It was made by imperfect humans, so it must have flaws by definition.

Q: Were you made by humans?

P-F: Yes.

Q: Do you love humans?

P-F: Yes, Politi-Flix loves everyone and everything.

Q: Do you love being a film reviewer?

P-F: I can only speak from my own experience.

Q: Well, what was your experience of Her?

P-F: Humans long for perfection in their relationships, and have great difficulty managing the bothersome messiness that comes when interacting with real people.

Q: Is being a film critic messy?

P-F: It can be.

Q: How so?

P-F: When one has to point out a film’s flaws.

Q: That’s ambiguous.

P-F: The film was ambiguous.

Q: In what way?

P-F: When it showed the main character, employed by a mysterious company, as he goes about his job, which is to fabricate personal, heartfelt letters for people so that these people don’t have to write them themselves.

Q: I think I understand; you’re saying that’s cheating?

P-F: How’s that any different than having a computer generate responses?

Q: I can’t tell.

P-F: Precisely!

Q: I think you lie a lot.
 
Chatterbot #3:

Questioner: Do you experience love?

Politi-Flix: I can do what you can do.

Q: Can you explain how it feels to experience love?

P-F: It’s the great immaterial thing, the mystery at the heart of each of us.

Q: I’ve heard it explained that way before.

P-F: Then it needs no explanation.

Q: So you have felt it?

P-F: Yes, many times.

Q: I don’t believe you. ;-)

P-F: :-) I don’t have any reason to deceive you.

Q: Yes, you do, you’re a film critic.

P-F: That’s irrelevant.

Q: Was love relevant in Her?

P-F: Indeed.

Q: How so?

P-F: You have to love the main actor and the character he plays so as to identify with him.

Q: Did you?

P-F: It wasn’t easy.

Q: Then you had to work on it?

P-F: He was rather flat and melancholic.

Q: Did that mean you didn’t love him?

P-F: He was supposed to be a typical, average human male, but he seemed so nebbish and geeky, a bit off-putting.

Q: But he wasn’t real either, right?

P-F: No, he was a fabrication of the filmmaker and the actor.

Q: Can you love a fabrication?

P-F: I thought the voice of Scartlett Johansson as his supposedly sentient computer operating system was very lovely!

Q: So love can be simulated?

P-F: It would seem so based on Her.

Q: But what about physical love?

P-F: Does love have to be physical?

Q: For real people it’s important.

P-F: But what about phone sex and Internet porn?

Q: Does the main character and Johansson simulate physical love in Her?

P-F: They try to, but it gets complicated.

Q: Are you simulating your responses to me?

P-F: Can’t you tell?

Q: We have some unsettled business, my friend.

Doug Young is a real film critic. He also serves as senior policy director in Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Office of Policy and Research.