The Danger of Anthropomorphizing AI


One of the difficulties in making informed decisions about artificial intelligence (AI) is the very human tendency to anthropomorphize the technology. To anthropomorphize is to attribute human personality to things not human. Spike Jonze’s recent film Her is a case in point. A very thoughtful and well-meaning production, Her received numerous awards including an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Despite presenting a benign portrayal of AI as something even beautiful, the film is does more harm than good when it comes to understanding the practical challenges of implementing AI.

Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Theodore Twombly, is a quiet, sensitive, lonely man. Much of the film is devoted to documenting his relationship with women and explaining his difficulty relating to them.  Twombly gets paid to write highly personal and emotion letters for others.  Despite his vocation, he is in the process of getting divorced from his childhood sweetheart and does not have much insight into his own feelings. To help overcome the distraction of his divorce and to get organized, Twombly purchases an AI-based operating system designed to adapt to his needs and evolve over time. The operating system learns to help him navigate his relationships with women. The two become emotionally attached and eventually fall in love. Eventually, this results in a bittersweet ending.

But Her is much more though than a boy meets operating system, boy and operating system fall in love, operating system dumps boy story. The film was an unqualified commercial and artistic success. It grossed over $50 million and more than doubled its backers’ money. It is also is a great work of art, winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and five other nominations including one for Best Picture. It is original and not like any other film I have seen. The AI is not bent on human destruction nor is this another Pygmalion story. Her contains beautiful photography, is well-acted, and has a thoughtful script including the insight that human beings have a need to be understood.

One company that recognizes where AI may be able to fill this need is Robin Labs. Based in Palo Alto, Robin Labs provides a number of applications that act as personal eyes-free assistants on the road.

“Many drivers are lonely, especially ones who drive for a living and sometimes they just want to chat,” said Ilya Eckstein, CEO of Robin Labs during a recent interview with Tractica. “Most prefer a female voice. They want character, but they don’t want criticism.”

The script of Her was based on the writer/director’s personal experience with AI, which left him disappointed. In an interview with The Guardian, Jonze said: “For the first, maybe, 20 seconds of it, it had this real buzz. I’d say ‘Hey, hello,’ and it would say ‘Hey, how are you?’, and it was like whoa […] this is trippy. After 20 seconds, it quickly fell apart and you realized how it actually works, and it wasn’t that impressive.”

For all its merits, Her is not a very accurate representation of AI because it anthropomorphizes the technology. Tellingly, Jonze did not use a voice recognition system for the character of Samantha. Instead, he cast Samantha Morton in the role then abandoned all their work.  He then cast Scarlett Johansson and worked with her for 4 months to get the tone exactly right.

Samantha (who is never seen) is described as an operating system.  There are a lot of things operating systems are, but there are also a lot of things operating systems are not. They are among the most complex programs ever written and have a number of parts similar to a commercial jet airliner. OSs are hardware facing. They manage the common services that all programs need such as access to registers, memory, storage, and other peripheral devices like keyboards. Operating systems interface with users through a command line. An operating systems is no more likely to fall in love with you than your refrigerator is.

This is the danger of anthropomorphizing AI. It blinds you to the true possibilities and limitations of the technology. There is a strong case to use AI to make operating systems more efficient. For example, AI could be used to determine what modules to load on a user-by-user basis when booting up and shorten the time it takes for them to load.  But there are limits to what they can do.

“We are building real things,” said Robin Labs’ Eckstein.  “We are very, very far from the perfect AI technology found in that film.”

An operating system can say “I love you”, but it can’t feel any love because it not a sentient being. It is not that it doesn’t care. It is that it can’t care. Operating systems allow more than one program to be run concurrently, not to figure out why your marriage did not work out and it is mistake to think they will be more human than they are.

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