In "Her" Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, who falls in love with Samantha the computer

In “Her” Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, who falls in love with Samantha the computer

By Will Goodbody, Science & Technology Correspondent


The movie “Her” was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture on Sunday night. Set a little in the future, the movie tells the story of a heartbroken man who falls in love with Samantha, a female sounding intelligent computer operating system.

The film didn’t win the Oscar, but has started something of a discussion about the potential extent of our interaction with computers and devices in the future. And it has provoked a bizarre yet obvious question: could a human ACTUALLY fall in love with a machine?

It’s a question which the Vice-President and fellow of global IT research firm Gartner, Jackie Fenn, tried to answer in a recent musing posted by the company on its website. According to Ms Fenn, the day when your computer will know you better than any human is not as far off as you may think.

Many of the artificial intelligence and learning capabilities that Samantha possessed, like speech and language recognition and conversational abilities, already exist. Just ask IBM’s Watson (actually don’t, as it will probably respond). Once computers can get smarter, there’s nothing to stop them becoming as good as or better than a person at doing certain tasks, she says. So what’s to stop an OS from becoming a better companion than most humans, she asks?

Watson, IBM's Jeopardy winning artificial interlligence computer

Watson, IBM’s Jeopardy winning artificial intelligence computer

However, there are many potential challenge she points out. Like humour and creativity for example.

“But even here researchers are experimenting with clever algorithms and deep learning,” Ms Fenn says. “If a computer can learn what makes people laugh – and more importantly what makes you laugh – based on watching and analysing over time, there is no theoretical reason that a computer couldn’t eventually display and respond to humour. Similarly with music or art – by experimenting, analysing and learning, it could figure out which compositions create the best emotional resonance in the human brain.”

Consciousness and will would be even more tricky for an artificial life form to crack perhaps. But Ms Fenn suggests that if a computer becomes so smart that it can show the right emotions at the right time, it may not matter that it’s not conscious. Because research has shown that even if a machine behaves like a human, it can be enough to convince us that it is effectively human, as a result of the way we are hardwired to respond.

Ms Fenn also points out that improving technology in the area of physiological monitoring means computers will have a distinct advantage over humans when it comes to reading body language. A computer could easily pick up fleeting changes in expression, remotely monitor vital signs like heart rate etc, and put it all together to determine how we are feeling, better than we can.

It’s a fascinating (albeit slightly spooky and unnerving) look at where advances in artificial intelligence may take us in years to come.

Of course, for many people who can’t even bring themselves to put down their phone, tablet or PC screen during a conversation, the reality of being in love with a computer device may already be here.

All they need now is a computer that can also cook!