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OPINIONS

Everyone who watched ‘Her’ is asking the wrong question

A recent film titled “Her” told the story of a man who falls in love with his phone’s operating system, which is voiced by the charming Scarlett Johansson. Because of my avid interest in technology, my friends who watched the film all asked me the same question: “Will technology ever be so good that we will not be able to tell the difference between humans and humanlike computers?” On the face of it, this is not a bad question at all. In fact, this is a question that computer scientists have been interested in since the Turing Test was proposed in 1950.

However, I think this is not the important question the film raises. To me, the more interesting question is why the lead character in the film is in love with the voice of his operating system even though he clearly knows that it is not a real human. This is not a new idea. Over a decade ago, my mentor, the late Stanford professor Clifford Nass, found that people were already treating computers much like they treat other people. In his book The Media Equation, Nass showed that people exhibit all kinds of human behavior toward computers, including politeness, gender biases and even physiological responses to changes on the screen. It is worth pointing out that he emphasized that the people he studied were Stanford students, and moreover, people who were perfectly aware that they were dealing with a computer and not a real person.

Indeed, other people can be annoying at times. The fact that we’re all unique is pretty cool, but it also means we are bound to disagree with any given person about something. Plus, people are often unpredictable, illogical, cryptic and sometimes plain ridiculous. On the other hand, technology is always there for us and ultimately does exactly what we ask it to do. Moreover, today’s technologists and designers are driven to do everything they can to make technology more likeable. Today’s computers are helpful, friendly and even care about getting to understand our likes and dislikes. They try their best to give us only the things we want and listen intently when we give feedback. It is thus no surprise that we sometimes prefer interacting with technology than with other people.

The big idea is that people don’t need to be fooled into believing that something is a real person in order for them to relate to it. Most children have relationships with their stuffed toys, even though they know deep down that the toy is not a real person. I’m sure all of us also know adults who ascribe personality traits to their inanimate possessions; after all, this happens in all kinds of places. I once asked a senior executive from National Public Radio (NPR) what he believed the core of the company was. He replied that the one word that he thinks describes the role of NPR best is “companionship.”

Although I was initially surprised that he used that word, it made sense to me almost immediately. Even as a public radio addict, the only time I listen to NPR is when I’m alone, be it while driving or running. The thing I love the most about it is being able to turn it on whenever I’m feeling bored and expect to be entertained every time. I find that this combination of convenience and companionship is often a surprisingly good substitute for talking to other people.

Technology may never be mistakable for a human, but my point is that that doesn’t seem to matter. To me, the choice between dating a human or a machine comes down to a simple economic decision, weighing the costs and benefits of one over the other. Theoretically, there is a point where the cost of not having all the favorable attributes of a human relationship would be outweighed by all the benefits of technology. This is no different than people choosing to be in a relationship despite all the inconveniences it may pose, simply because the benefits outweigh the costs.

Relationships are much less about receiving than about giving. However, this is not a natural state of mankind, since all organisms are inherently selfish. Are all the personalization and natural language voice algorithms making us too comfortable being selfish and choosing what is most convenient for us? Is there really a point in the future where the convenience and comfort of technology makes the inconvenience of interacting with a real person just not worth it? Or is our natural desire to socialize and find a mate always going to be stronger than that? Are humans really going to invent and adopt technology that strips us of our basic human instincts? I sure hope not.

Contact Angad Singh at angadsingh@stanford.edu.