The radio is on and I’m listening to a linguist on NPR talk about AI (artificial intelligence) in relationship to the recent competition which measured if AI could fool humans into thinking it was alive. It’s known as the turing test, which is measured as successful if the bot can fool 30% of the people it’s talking to for at least a 2 minute span. This test did so for 5 minutes. Of course the humans were told this was a 13 year old foreign child, so the poor english was excused. Still, it signifies a jump for AI and our understanding of what it means to be human.
Granted those in the field feel it isn’t true AI as the bot isn’t thinking conversations, merely rehashing responses, taking key phrases to piece together answers, and answering a question with a question. It isn’t alive, it doesn’t understand the meaning of alive, and it isn’t conscious. However, philosophically, how do we know if we’re alive and conscious, if not through the acknowledgment of others?
We understand ourselves through the reflection of ourselves in others. We are conscious in the eyes of others. It’s the buddhist notion of if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? We base our reactions on the expression of others. We understand emotion because of the emotions of others. Our responses are in response to the expectations of those around us.
The not too distant future of “Her” is a world where AI has become power enough to emulate us, to be as human as we are and then some. These beings are as social as we are, command our emotions in every bit as true as our own. Scarlet Johansson and Joaquin Phoenix characters develop their relationship in response to their daily interactions. One reacts to the other. He finds solace in a ‘woman’ who is ever-present, tends to his every emotional need, wishes to be at his side daily (as if she had a choice there, being an operating system). She imprints onto him as her first reference point to humanity, in some ways the way we imprint onto our first loves. It ‘feels’ too real, so much so she wants to make it real with a surrogate. She wants so badly to experience what it means to be human, yet never stops to think that’s exactly what she’s emoting. But it’s the way AI experiences humanity; love knows no bounds. With 600+ lovers at the end of the film, it’s out of the capacity of a human to know. We scarcely know 600, let alone a couple hundred within our day to day lives. Not to mention our own social constraints on relationships and the biology of sex interjecting (you can’t exactly have sex with that many people let along be lovers with that many people). So what you could say is Scarlet’s character is the state of humanity beyond biology and physicality. We’d do the same if not for our own socio-physiological drawbacks as living organisms.
Going back to their relationship, the duo falls in love in spite of a lack of a physical connection. They experience the world around them as shared photos, voices carried on electrons, as words fluctuating on screens. They live as a couple living in far away lands, unable to touch, yet able to enrich their lives with a connection that makes them feel whole. Her laugh makes him Joaquin smile, and his thoughts draw her deeper into the web of humanity. They exchange sweet nothings, he ‘brings’ her to the beach via the camera in his phone, she ‘calls’ him up in the middle of the night to share her musings. They integrate into each other’s worlds, albeit an artificial construct.
It’s no different than millions each day in our reality sharing their lives with the ones they adore. They meet online, may never touch, yet fabricate a relationship based on spun words, echoes on the phone, carefully constructed photographers, and snippets of selected video. It is manufactured yet feels every bit real. The mind fills in the gaps with what it doesn’t know and draws closer to what it does. It falls in love with singular images and a lexicon of phrases without having smells, tasted, or touched this individual. It bypasses the biological indications that evolved for survival and mating, and plugs straight into our consciousness.
How do we know this person is real? How do we know ‘he’ is 37 with dark hair and hazel eyes, living in Ontario as a musician? How do we know she’s 26, ginger, with the sweetest of voices, and a smile that could soften any prisoner’s face? Words convey the emotions that can be faked, photographs can be found online, voices if you really wanted could be modulated. All you need to do is check out a dating website. There are countless stories of fake profiles used to take advantage of men and women looking for love or lust. That’s a small minority of incidents though. The rest of us go on good faith, assuming (and hoping) the other person truly is the person they say they are. For the most part, that’s true. They are human surely. Though with a gap in physicality brings with it time to ponder thoughts in less than real time, we edit our photos to bring out the best in us, and talk in bubbles that exist only in the digital void. Bodily cues don’t factor in. It is a world beyond our own, where if the other person is offline, they cease to exist.
These relationships are real in the unrealist way. We react as we would to a person next to us yet carry the advantage of manipulation and the disadvantage of disregarding the point of making a relationship (reproduction). That’s not to say sex and relationships is all about that. It’s about a partner who serves to compliment and comfort. However, it doesn’t exist on the plane of being we can physically see. It is neither here nor there, yet our entire world. The person we project digitally exists because we wield it, and disappears the moment the facade is dropped.
We can be anything we want, any one we want, experience a life not our own. It feels as real as our existence. And who’s not to say it isn’t real? After all, reality is what you make of it. A person is the sum of our experiences, and if your experiences are founded on the flow of electrons, then we must fundamentally change the perception of reality to include a parallel world that is every bit part of our own yet carries its own timeline. The persons in that dimension are only as real as we make them. They exist because we wield them so. If they pass the turing test and hold up their end of the conversation, they’re human. We should ask ourselves what the ever-present invisible world has done to shift the way we understand what it means to perceive ourselves on the physical plane, especially when the person on the other side is only as tangible as the air we breath. We can’t see it, we can’t taste it, we can’t touch it, but it’s there carving us day by day, weathering our skin, affecting our breaths, palpitating our hearts as yearn for more.