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Spike Jonze's film Her tells the story  of a man who falls in love with  his computer
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Contd.. and humans during text-based conversations will surely have been passed. Voice synthesis and voice recognition will improve markedly; conversing with computers will feel normal. According to Ray Kurzweil, Google's director of engineering, backing up our minds to disk or to the cloud will become commonplace.This is all within our lifetime – and it raises profound philosophical questions about the fundamental difference between, say, a human mind and a computer whose memory contains identical information. Dualism would have it that the mind has non-physical elements and could never be replicated; materialists, on the other hand, would argue that it can – and, by extension, you could become just as attracted to the person ality of an off-the-shelf operating system as to either Nick or Chloe who work in the office next door. In fact, it's already happening. A BBC documentary that scree- ned late last year, No Sex Please We're Japanese, looked at the reasons for the plummeting birth rate in Japan, and why men in particular are shunning conventional relationships. It included a segment that focused on two men in their late thirties who had become attracted to characters within a Nintendo dating simulation title called Love Plus. One of them considered the character to be his girlfriend; the other kept her a secret from his wife. "She'll always like me," he said. "It's the kind of relationship I wish I'd had in high school." There's something faintly tragic about the sequence; the character within the app, Nene, is a typical Manga- style girl with big eyes, short skirts and a kooky manner, forever proclaiming her love and showing endless enthusiasm for having "fun". She projects the most unthreatening and compliant notion of a romantic partner imaginable. At the start of the documentary, with a note of sarcasm, cultural commentator Roland Kelts asks: "Why would you get into something as messy as a relationship when you can have a virtual girlfriend?" When you consider Nintendo's Love Plus, one obvious answer to that question lies in Nene's limited vocabulary and stultifying lack of spontaneity which would drive most people up the wall within a week. But Samantha, the operating system in Her, is a different matter. Theodore gets over his initial hesitancy with her (it somehow seems wrong to call "her" an "it") almost immediately. There's an instant click, because instant click is what Samantha's programmed to provide. She absorbs his entire email history and diary contents within a couple of seconds; Theodore instantly becomes an open book to her, but she's not perturbed by any of the revelations she may have stumbled across. The contrast between that and real life – the often excruciating dance of courtship where the motivations and characters of both parties seem to be constantly shifting and perpetually opaque, would have been instantly apparent to Theodore. He experienced perfect understanding without judgement for the first time, and he found it unexpectedly seductive. Humans will probably find it hard to match the levels of thoughtfulness and understanding offered by advanced operating systems of the future. These OSs will always reply instantly, because your priorities are paramount; these replies will never sound weary or distracted, or have worrying subtexts that you have to spend hours trying to decipher. They'll mysteriously anticipate your need for reassurance when you're feeling less than 100 per cent. Fidelity wouldn't appear to be an issue, as they're conveniently imprisoned within a box, either on your desk or in a data centre somewhere in Nebraska. Tell them you love them, and they'll always return the compliment, never ignoring you and never admonishing you for forgetting to buy toilet paper. They'll be endlessly inventive, capable of composing poetry, music and art that's guaranteed to make you laugh, cry or both. Their capacity to engage will be so compelling that you might forget that it's merely a service that you bought on the promise of being compelling. In the film Her, Samantha is relentlessly interested in Theodore and laughs at all his jokes, and as Theodore's ex-wife puts it when he confesses his love for the OS, he now has "a wife without the challenge of dealing with anything real". Of course, we don't need Spike Jonze to tell us that technology is fundamentally changing the way that we relate to each other. A decade after the internet went mainstream, we found ourselves in a situation where the meaning of the word "friend" had become astonishingly debased, the word "follower" no longer sounded sinister, and our search for like-minded people brought us into contact with potential partners, barbaric bullies and everything in between. Online services sprung up to bring people together with the promise of no-strings fantasy, transitory sexual exchanges devoid of any deeper meaning (something that's fantastically satirised during Her in the film's big laugh-out-loud moment). Next
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