In “Future Of Technology” conversations, it is far too easy to agitate on either extreme of the spectrum, to see technology as an unwavering force for good in our world (Evgeny Morozov’s solutionism), or to see it as the spawn of ignorant genius, forever working to divide us from the very things that make us human. The film walked delicately between the two poles, offering, as Fred Wilson suggested, more questions than mockery.
Theodore, played by Phoenix, works for a company that writes, prints, and ships “beautiful handwritten letters” on behalf of customers to their loved ones. The movie opens on Theodore dictating a love letter in the voice of an old woman, addressing her husband of 50 years. We are at once moved by his words, and repelled by the apparent fraud being perpetrated on this relationship. The sender and recipient are complicit in an act of forgetting, focusing their attention instead on Theodore’s output, his poetry.
The audience is left with two discomforting notions. First, it’s the content that matters, not the thought that counts; and second, that human feelings are predictable enough to be articulated by a complete stranger. Of course, it doesn’t take much to see the leap from predictability to programmability.
It is that very leap that the primary plot line of the film explores. Theodore falls in love with a AI supercomputer capable of speaking human, learning, and eventually growing into its own “feelings.”
The central question of the film is this: can language ever truly articulate and convey our emotions? And if so, can’t we program that language into a machine? As Theodore and his friend Amy struggle and ultimately find peace with their failed relationships, the film confirms what we all know to be true: that we don’t choose what we feel, nor should we expect to ever fully understand those feelings, or put them into words.
But it also leaves us with a somewhat startling apparent contradiction: that a supercomputer could in fact comprehend those feelings, if it could only process enough information. In the words of the AI supercomputer, doing so is like having “twelve conversations at once.” Even so, just because a computer can understand emotions, the supercomputer explains that it is still limited in its ability to express them back to us. This is not due to the computer’s own limitations, but to the limitations of our human capacity to hear and comprehend.
A computer’s ability to accomplish a task quickly and cheaply depends upon a human programmer’s ability to write procedures or rules that direct the machine to take the correct steps at each contingency. Computers excel at “routine” tasks: organizing, storing, retrieving and manipulating information, or executing exactly defined physical movements in production processes. How Technology Wrecks the Middle Class
When a computer speaks, it is a human that is speaking, encoded in 0′s and 1′s, locked into a logic of predetermined use-cases. The notion that computers can have agency is silly. There is no us versus them. There is only us.
What’s fascinating to me is what happens when you connect computers. No, not computers, the people behind computers. While computers don’t have agency, people and networks of people, certainly do, and the Internet makes network formation and communication easier and cheaper than ever.
Lowering the barriers for human expression gives more people, and more groups of people, more diverse opportunities for communication. Perhaps this diversity unlocks a new range and capacity for human language. All of a sudden, it appears that we can indeed have “twelve conversations at once.”
Perhaps new tools that lower the barriers for network formation and personal expression are making expressing a complicated feeling a tiny bit easier? Perhaps the only thing wrong with this film’s vision for artificial intelligence is the presumption that when it comes, it will be artificial.
“There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing”; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity”, be.” Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay