Friday, 21 February 2014

Could You Really Fall in Love With a Computer Operating System?

Could You Really Fall in Love With a Computer Operating System?
Feb 21st 2014, 15:07, by John Oswald
Some would say a film about a man who falls in love with a computer operating system, as seen in Her, Spike Jonze's latest film, would be an odd choice for a Valentine's Day romcom.

10 years ago, you probably would have been right. But, in this age of digital ubiquity, the scenario is less crazy than you might like to think.

Her, which was released in UK cinemas on Valentine's Day, centres around Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a man heartbroken after the end of a long-term relationship.

Theodore seeks solace from his loneliness with 'Samantha', an artificially intelligent operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). The technology powering Samantha is so advanced it's able to learn and respond to Theodore's all-too human emotions and feelings. And, as the film progresses, he becomes increasingly emotionally dependent on 'her', to the point where 'she's' dominating his life.

But could anyone really fall in love with a piece of software? It may sound like the stuff of science fiction but, the truth is, much of the technology the film depicts is already with us. And scenarios like this might not be that far off. 'Love' is perhaps a metaphor for the kind of dependency or symbiosis we're heading towards.

Foremost among Her's prescient tech visions is its depiction of what will eventually come to be known as 'living services'. Sensors and smart devices are already delivering a sea change in our ability to offer interesting and useful digital services to customers. These services will be "living" because they will be wrapped around our daily lives; responding in real time to changes in temperature or patterns of behaviour and blurring the distinction between the Internet and the real world as the two increasingly merge.

Early examples include wearable technology that helps us to monitor our health and fitness (for example, FitbugFitbit Flex and Jawbone UP wristbands), and services that enable us to remotely manage our homes (Nest Labs' smart thermostat).

As digital services become more sophisticated, helping us to simplify our lives, you can easily imagine a scenario where we 'fall in love' with them and won't be able to live without them. As a computer operating system that can imitate human relationships, Samantha is an extreme (fictional) example of living services but it has interesting implications for the future of service design, and for how services can and will be 'humanised' so we can relate to them better.

Another interesting trend identified in Her is the fact the technology surrounding Theodore is largely invisible. Unlike the mad, futuristic screens in Minority Report, the technology depicted in the film is pared back - Theodore has a phone but it's very unobtrusive and well designed. In the very near future, technology hardware will become a lot more dispersed and invisible, taking the form of multi-sensory technology with controls built into the home's infrastructure, collecting and connecting data to manage our digitised lifestyles.

How people interact with technology is changing as well, something Spike Jonze has picked up on. Very soon, we'll be using voice recognition and audio rather than clicks and screens. Cinematically speaking, this features heavily in the film, and may well be hard to imagine now, but if you're looking for where things are heading, look no further than a more functional, consistent and accurate version of Apple's Siri (which intriguingly means "beautiful woman who leads you to victory" in Norwegian).

Like Samantha, the application uses language as its interface and is able to adapt itself to the user's individual preferences, personalising results to answer their questions and make recommendations. The physical interfaces we've become used to, such as screens and keyboards, are increasingly paving the way for the use of natural user interfaces (NUIs) - our voice, skin, eyes, and brain, which consumers will use to get things done more intuitively.

With Theodore so hopelessly dependent on Samantha, you can see how Her could easily move into the realm of dystopia. And here's where the technology raises another important issue. This notion of digital autonomy is potentially a growing problem in the real world. Some technology brands (Apple, Google) are slowly building up whole ecosystems around the consumer, attempting to become indispensable. This is a similar trap Theodore finds himself in with Samantha, without wanting to issue any spoilers if you haven't seen the film....

The problem is, we naturally don't want machines to drive things for us and, if we do, it's on our terms. So will we see consumers start to push back and avoid getting locked into a particular brand's ecosystem? And, equally, will brands learn to back off? Will we move to a world where we don't have to learn how to interact with every brand individually and where the most important 'brands' are the ones that facilitate things for us rather than being the object of our consumption patterns?

As digital services evolve, addressing these issues will become vital. Because, in the real world, people are unlikely to surrender themselves to technology in quite the same way Theodore does.

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