Is Anyone There? On her and Transcendence

May 16th, 2014 | Category: Essays, Reviews

Cinema is our most viable and enduring form of design fiction. More than any other medium, it lets us peer into possible futures projected from the raw materials of the recent past, simulate scenes based on new visions via science and technology, gauge our reactions, and adjust our plans accordingly. These visions are equipment for living in a future heretofore unseen. As video artist Bill Viola (1995) puts it,

The implied goal of many of our efforts, including technological development, is the eradication of signal-to-noise ratio, which in the end is the ultimate transparent state where there is no perceived difference between the simulation and the reality, between ourselves and the other. We think of two lovers locked in a single ecstatic embrace. We think of futuristic descriptions of direct stimulation to the brain to evoke experiences and memories (p. 224).

Miles explains love to Edgar the computer in Electric Dreams (1984)

Miles explains love to Edgar the computer in Electric Dreams (1984)

Welcome to the world of Pinecone Computers. This model will learn with you, so type your name and press Enter key to begin.
— Miles Harding reading from a computer manual in Electric Dreams (1984)

Since the big-screen tales of the 1980s’ PC-era, the idea of machines merging with humans has been a tenacious trope in popular culture. In Tron (1982) Kevin Flynn was sucked through a laser into the digital realm. Wired to the testosterone, the hormone-driven juvenile geniuses of Weird Science (1985) set to work making the woman of their dreams. WarGames (1983) famously pit suburban whiz-kids against a machine hell bent on launching global thermonuclear war. In Electric Dreams (1984), which is admittedly as much montage as it is movie, Miles Harding (played by Lenny von Dohlen, who would go on to play the agoraphobic recluse Harold Smith in Twin Peaks) attempts to navigate a bizarre love triangle between him, his comely neighbor, and his new computer.

From the jealous machine to falling in love with the machine, the theme remains pervasive 30 years on. As Ray Kurzweil writes of Spike Jonze’s her,

Jonze introduces another idea that I have written about (and that is the central theme of Barry Ptolemy’s movie about my ideas, Transcendent Man), namely, AIs creating an avatar of a deceased person based on their writings, other artifacts and people’s memories of that person. In her, the AIs get together and recreate 1960s philosopher Alan Watts (whom I remember from my teenage years).

Theodore Twombly at work in her (2013).

Theodore Twombly at work in her (2013).

I’d say “her” is a movie about (the education of) an interesting woman who falls in love with a man who, though sweet, is mired in biology. — , Tweeted on February 16, 2014

in her, Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) writes letters for a living. Letters between fathers and daughters, long-distance lovers, husbands, wives. He condenses stories from the vapor of their nuances. In doing so, he is especially susceptible to the power of narrative himself since his job involves the constant creation of believable, vicarious stories. His ability to immerse himself in the stories of others makes it that much easier for him to get lost in his operating system (“Samantha,” voiced by Scarlett Johansson) as she constructs narratives to create her personality, and thereby, their relationship.

In many ways, her can be read as a response to Lost in Translation (2003), directed by Jonze’s wife at the time, Sophia Coppola, who, like Jonze did for her, won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. That movie is in part about the dissolution of Jonze and Coppola’s relationship. Where Giovanni Ribisi plays a goofy, self-involved Jonze (“John”) in Lost in Translation, Rooney Mara plays an ununderstanding, judgemental Coppola (“Catherine”) in her: mere caricatures of themselves played out in bit parts. Where others have no problem with it, ex-wife Catherine has no truck with Theodore’s new OS love. He nonetheless remains incredulously committed.

Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter calls our imbuing machines with more intelligence than they have—even when we know better—“The ELIZA Effect,” after Joseph Weizenbaum’s text-based psychoanalytic computer program, ELIZA. Hofstadter writes, “The most superficial of syntactic tricks convinced some people who interacted with ELIZA that the program actually understood everything that they were saying, sympathized with them, even empathized with them” (p. 158). ELIZA was written at MIT by Weizenbaum in the mid-1960s, but its effects linger on. “Like a tenacious virus that constantly mutates,” Hofstadter continues, “the Eliza effect seems to crop up over and over again in AI in ever-fresh disguises, and in subtler and subtler forms” (p. 158). To wit, in Chapter One of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together (2011; specifically pp. 24-25), she extends the idea to our amenability to new technologies, including artificial intelligence, embodied or otherwise: “And true to the ELIZA effect, this is not so much because the robots are ready but because we are” (p. 25).

More germane to her is a program called KARI, which stands for “Knowledge Acquiring and Response Intelligence.” According to Dominic Pettman’s first and only conversation with Kari (see Pettman’s Look at the Bunny, 2013), there’s a long way to go before any of us are falling in love with our computers.

Kevin Flynn getting zapped into the computer in Tron (1982).

Kevin Flynn getting zapped into the computer in Tron (1982).

Others imagine a much more deliberate merging, postulating an uploading of human consciousness into the machines themselves, known in robotic and artificial intelligence circles as “The Moravec Transfer.” Its namesake, roboticist Hans Moravec, describes a human brain being uploaded, neuron by neuron, until it exists unperturbed inside a machine. But Moravec wasn’t the first to imagine such a transition (for another early example, see Stine, 1979). NASA’s own Robert Jastrow wrote in 1984 that uploading our minds into machines is the be-all of evolution and would make us immortal. He wrote,

At last the human brain, ensconced in a computer, has been liberated from the weakness of the mortal flesh… The machine is its body; it is the machine’s mind… It seems to me that this must be the mature form of intelligent life in the Universe. Housed in indestructible lattices of silicon, and no longer constrained in the span of its years by the life and death cycle of a biological organism, such a kind of life could live forever (p. 166-167).

Dr. Will Caster merges with the machine in Trancendence (2014).

Dr. Will Caster merges with the machine in Transcendence (2014).

In Transcendence (2014) Dr. Will Caster (played by Johnny Depp) and his wife (“Evelyn,” played by Rebecca Hall, who almost seems to be filling in for an unavailable Johansson) do just that. Caster is terminally ill and on the verge of offloading his mortal shell. Once uploaded into a quantum computer connected to the internet, Caster becomes something less than himself and something more simultaneously. It’s the chronic consciousness question: What is it about you that makes you you? Is it still there once all of your bits are transferred into a new vessel? The Casters’ love was strong enough for them to try and find out.

If Kubrick and Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) can be read as an allegory for gays being accepted by their parents (see Kraus, 2004, p. 182), what sociological anxieties can we superimpose over her and Transcendence? I am admittedly a lapsed student of AI, having dropped out of the University of Georgia’s Artificial Intelligence master’s program several years ago. My interest in AI lies in the weird ways that consciousness and creation butt heads in the midst of such advanced technologies. Mix a love story in there and you’ve got questions and quests for a lifetime. As Jonze himself puts it, “… a lot of the feelings you have about relationships or about technology are often contradictory” (quoted in Michael, 2013). Love and technology willing, when one of us has to be leaving, we won’t let that come between us, okay?


Hofstadter, Douglas. (1995). Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Jastrow, Robert. (1984). The Enchanted Loom: Mind in the Universe. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kraus, Chris. (2004). Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness. New York: Semiotext(e).

Michael, Chris. (2013, September 9). Spike Jonze on Letting Her Rip and Being John Malkovich. The Guardian.

Pettman, Dominic. (2013). Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology. Ropley Hants, UK: Zer0 Books.

Stine, G. Harry. (1979, July). The Bionic Brain. Omni Magazine, vol. 1, #10, pp. 84-86, 121-122.

Turkle, Sherry. (2011). Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books

Viola, Bill. (1995). Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Weizenbaum, Joseph. (1976). Computer Power and Human Reason. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman.

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