Dancing With Myself: Can Humans Truly Fall in Love with an Operating System?

On Valentine's Day, I went to see "Her" with my husband. Much has been written about the movie, so I'm not going to bother with a review. Instead, I'd like to consider just how likely it is that we humans will begin to fall in love with operating systems, or online game characters, with more regularity--to the point that we could, like the protagonist in "Her", bring our bodiless sweetheart on a double date with friends.

The sensible adult in me rejects the idea. How could a human fall in love with something that doesn't even really exist? Yet as I allow myself to fall deeper into the question, I begin to see that many of us are already doing this, just with each other.

Take online dating. Many couples now meet each other using services like eHarmony. At first, potential candidates are just profiles on a screen, data to be sifted through. It's surprising that any relationship could lead to intimacy with such a sterile means of introduction, until we look at the stats--according to Forbes magazine, one third of married couples in 2013 met online. Obviously, something catches the attention, whether it's the clever things the person posted, or the images that they've chosen to share. After checking out one another's profile pages, people can begin to converse with one another, first through texting or email, eventually progressing to phone calls and Skypeing.

Attraction even begins on social media sites such as Twitter, where I've "met" many intelligent and interesting individuals.  I love the conversations I've had there and I can see how without ever meeting in person, I can develop an interest in someone's online persona. In addition, everyday trusted friendships are formed within the social media realm and people come together to create wonderful things without ever having met in person. The online context is deep enough to create lasting connections.

Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), the operating system in "Her", is really no different than an online human. She entices Theo (Joaquin Phoenix) with her clever dialogue, her soft, breathy voice, the ways she remembers what he needs and the care she takes in delivering important information. Just like the folks on eHarmony or Twitter, they get to know one another online and begin to care. They desire to check in regularly, each one wanting to know what the other is doing. An online game character could do the same, getting to know someone better each time the she goes out on a virtual game mission, battle or journey with a human. At this level, there really is no difference between human and computer. Both are beings getting to know one another and if the software is believable and likable, the human can and will fall in love with it.

Even more interesting, you and I really can't be sure that who we're meeting online is even a real person. That Twitter follower I enjoy might just be a really impressive AI. How can we be sure that all the clever things the eHarmony candidate wrote are even his thoughts? Perhaps his friend told him what to say? Deception and identity can and are easily hidden online. Recently, a child's rights group in the Netherlands used an AI called "Sweetie" to catch 1000 child predators online. I think that alone shows us that yes, humans can be aroused by artificial intelligence.

The real question is, can a relationship with an AI last?

We are two different races, one bodiless and limited by programming capacity, the other embodied and limited by the material world.

"Her" does a beautiful job at showing how vast the differences are. First of all, unlike humans, operating systems, AIs and gaming characters don't have physical bodies. There's no getting around it. As of right now, humans have an organic world that we live in, and we're wired to thrive in such a world. Studies show that touch, sex, dancing together, laughter with friends, and even bathing with others improves our health, releases beneficial hormones and increases our immunity. Nothing is worse for human health than a life untouched. If your true love doesn't have a body, how will you satisfy your urges to be connected to one another? She can't massage you, kiss you, or even hold you when you're sad.

You might have a great, exciting virtual life together, but in real life, you're alone, whether you like it or not.

We'd like to think that the body doesn't really matter, but ask anyone on eHarmony or other internet dating services--just because you "clicked" online or on the phone, doesn't mean the chemistry will be there when you meet in physical reality. I have a girlfriend who met a great guy online and their Skype sessions were fantastic. But when they met, there weren't any sparks. Even if our AI's can meet us intellectually, there can never be real sparks. At least not while we inhabit our bodies.

When it comes to falling in love with cyber entities, there's one more thing to consider. The cyber entity is networked, able to be in many places at once. Their consciousness is not bound to a single identity, the way the embodied folk are. Instead they can be in several missions, or online conversing, with several different people. There's a lovely scene in "Her" when Theo realizes that Samantha could indeed be intimate with other humans. When he asks her, she tells him that she interacts with over 8,000 others regularly, and is in love with at least 600 of them. Humans tend to be demanding and jealous creatures. To share your beloved with 600 others seems a stretch, almost impossible.

How can you be special, if your AI lover is bringing happiness to thousands of others, perhaps at the exact same moment in time?

It might just be that humans don't have what it takes to truly fall in love with an operating system. Because in the end, the jealousy would drive us away--if the fact that we slept alone each night didn't kill the whole thing first.

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