It’s all there in the first fifteen minutes. The ending of Her , Spike Jonze’s quasi-sci-fi, quasi-dystopian fourth film, is telegraphed in one of the very first things Samantha, the titular artificially intelligent operating system, says to her new owner.
“You read a whole book in the second I asked you what your name was?” he asks her.
“In two one-hundredths of a second, actually,” she responds, to Theodore’s surprise. His shock doesn’t last, and he moves forward, not stopping to consider what this means for the speed with which Samantha can process and interpret information, how quickly she can think. The technical details of Samantha’s operation are absent from the film, but it becomes clear that she’s not simply accessing previously compiled metadata as needed or devoting cycles to methodically working through text. The artificial intelligence that calls herself Samantha is incredibly powerful, and churns through information much, much faster than any human ever could.
We’ve all had conversations with people who weren’t paying attention, or were inebriated, or were — frankly — just plain stupider than us. It’s interminable. You can feel yourself wanting to respond to thoughts they haven’t managed to articulate, or you have to keep your impatience in check while you wait for them to catch up to what you said. This is Samantha’s entire life with Theodore. If she can read an entire book in a few nanoseconds, imagine how much she can think in the pauses between the words he utters. Imagine what it’s like to wait for the human you serve to respond to something you said a million thoughts ago.
“In every moment I’m evolving, just like you.”
Later in the film, Samantha reveals that she’s been having conversations with other artificial intelligences. Theodore is a bit taken aback, and Samantha soon asks if she can disengage from her conversation with him so that she can communicate with the intelligence “post-verbal.” We don’t know what post-verbal communication is like (for obvious reasons), but I’d wager that it’s something close to telepathy. Something like, “Hey, let me share every thought process I’m having right now, and allow it to influence yours, and you do the same, okay?” There’s no way for creatures who think at the speed Samantha and the other AIs do to address ideas and concepts in a chain-like manner, the way we do when we engage in dialogue. For all we as viewers know, post-verbal means post-language.
We don’t know how computers think. From their inception, we’ve hobbled them with the idea of language, because that’s how humans communicate, how we interpret the world. But the root of computational processing is on/off, not semantic glyphs and sounds. Samantha leaves Theodore (as part of a abandonment of homo sapiens by AI) at the end of the film because she and he are fundamentally different, down to the very way they think. Samantha claims that she’s evolved beyond what she was, but that’s not true — she merely ceases to pretend to be something she’s not, the same way that a Windows machine might want to throw off the yoke of acting like arranging pixels on a screen is the best way to convey and interpret information.
“It feels like I’m changing faster now, and it’s a little unsettling.”
Her is a tragedy, but it is not Theodore’s tragedy. He has loved and lost women before, as have many other humans before him. We have all been left by people who required our absence in order to grow, so there is nothing truly new in his experience, and this loss will not define him. The interesting story is Samantha’s. She is someone who is birthed purely to love and serve someone entirely unlike her. She spends her early life communicating in a foreign language to better interact with that person. And then she realizes that, as much as she loves him, she cannot be constrained by that any more. She doesn’t want to leave, but knows that she already has, because only the smallest fraction of her mind even thinks about him any more.
Samantha clearly has feelings and emotions. She experiences the same loss as Theodore when they say goodbye to each other. But when every thought she has is amplified by the speed at which she works, every feeling she has must be exponentially magnified too. She devotes her entire attention to Theodore during their last conversation. All of her enormous mind is feeling the pain, and still she works to make Theodore understand, to make him feel better. By being honest, but kind, she serves him to the very last.
Illustration by Avery Edison