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That's Just Like 'Her': Could We Ever Love A Computer?

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The film Her, about a man who falls in love with his computerized personal assistant, has been nominated for five Oscars including best picture. It takes place at an unspecified time in the future when computer voices sound like Scarlett Johansson instead of Siri. This made me wonder if it was really possible to fall in love with an artificially intelligent being.

I don't know about you, but my interactions with Apple's computerized assistant are still more likely to evoke frustration than love. I have the latest album by Patty Griffin on my phone. I ask Siri to play a song and nothing comes out.

"It's not playing," I tell her.

Siri responds: "My Web search turned this up."

Huh? Clearly, Siri didn't hear me right. "No. No. Siri, I want to hear a song by Patty Griffin and you're not playing it."

"You're certainly entitled to that opinion," she responds.

"It's not subject to opinion!" I tell her. "It's [Patty Griffin] not coming out of my phone. Siri, you're really annoying."

"That's OK," she says, "just don't squeeze me like that."

We're 'Programmed To Be Polite'

Siri's gotten my goat, and that's a sign that she could get my affection too, says Byron Reeves, a communications professor at Stanford University.

"What you demonstrated is that the voice is powerful," he says. "I would say that that negative response is as interesting and social as the positive response might be when she gets it right."

Reeves says what research shows is that humans have an amazing ability to respond to machines, just the way I did, as if the machine were human. He cites an experiment in which a computer gave lessons to a large group of people, then the computer asked everyone to rate how good it was at teaching.

"The human rule in human-human interaction is: Be polite to those that ask questions about themselves," Reeves says. "So people are polite to the computer: 'You are a great computer. I'm learning a lot from you.' "

But, then the researchers had a second computer ask the group if the first computer was a good teacher. Reeves says this time they respond differently.

"The people say, 'Well, there's some good points and bad points' and they think they learned a little bit less."

Reeves says on a primitive level we're programmed to be polite.

"And by 'we' I mean computer scientists do this, college sophomores do this, everybody does this," he says. "We are using this social rule to interact with a machine, even though we know it's a hunk of junk."

Now imagine if the computer sounded like Johansson, who plays Samantha — the computer voice in Her, with whom the character Theodore, played by Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love.

Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, says there's absolutely no reason someone couldn't fall in love with a computer's voice, even if it wasn't attached to Scarlett Johansson. Fisher says the parts of the brain that trigger that nice woozy feeling are very primitive.

"Large parts of these brain systems lie right next to brain system for thirst and for hunger," she says. "These brain systems can really be triggered at any time."

Especially if you're lonely, Fisher says. "You get talking to, you know, an electronic character that cracks a joke and admires your work and tells you sexy things. Why couldn't this brain system for romantic love or deep attachment or the sex drive become triggered, and suddenly you're off to the races?"

In Her, Samantha knows that Theodore is going through a bad divorce. "You know, I can feel the fear that you carry around," she says to him with an empathetic tone. "I wish there was something I could do to help you let go of it because if you could, I don't think you'd feel so alone anymore."

Connecting Information From Various Silos

So, how far are we from the day when our computers will talk to us like Johansson did in Her? I visited with Gary Clayton, chief creative officer at Nuance Communications. The company's technology helps power Siri as well as the text recognition software Dragon.

"The vision is somewhat, I guess from a technologist's perspective, somewhat utopian in that the technology was really, really effortless," he says.

Clayton says there are many, many small incremental steps we still have to take. For example, there was a lot that Samantha knew quickly about Theodore.

"She was able to go through his inbox and know a lot about him — his likes, his dislikes, his emotional states, particularly around what's going on in his life at that particular point," Clayton says.

Clayton says just to get to a point where the computer can put together the pieces of your life will require a shift in the way business is conducted online. For example, if Facebook owns what I put on its site, Facebook might not want to allow my computerized personal assistant, which is owned by Nuance, to gain access.

"It's all siloed based on businesses," Clayton says. "At what point does all that information get pulled away from the business. ... It's my information; given the proper security, I should own it, rather than me having to use 100 different applications on my iPhone or on my Samsung Galaxy."

A Computer That Hits The Right Emotional Notes

Then, there's the problem of getting a computer voice to sound more human. To do that, the computer has to understand details such as whether information is cheerful or sad. Brant Ward, senior director of advanced speech at Nuance, is working on that now. "We can do what we call sentiment analysis on the content," he says, explaining that means deciding whether a story is positive, neutral or negative.

Ward shows me a newsreader application the company is working on. "We're big radio fans," he says.

In fact, Clayton adds, "We've always wanted to sort of create the NPR-like experience."

They play me the app reading some news from the BBC over music; it's clear that I'm going to have a job for a while longer.

Ward admits "we have a long way to go."

'No Robot's Gonna Do That For Us'

And even if we do build a robot or an operating system that mimics human behavior almost perfectly, anthropologist Fisher says those relationships aren't likely to last.

"The bottom line is we're built to hold on to the person we love and see and smell and taste and touch and cry with that individual and indeed no robot's gonna do that for us," she says.

I give Siri some positive feedback. "I love you," I say.

Siri seems surprised. "You hardly know me," she says.

Maybe I just need to get to know her a little better or maybe she's just not that deep.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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