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Digital Love: The Unchartered Waters of the New Machine Age

Posted By David Brousell, January 14, 2014 at 8:23 AM, in Category: Transformative Technologies

As we continue to witness marvelous advances in technologies such as robotic systems, data mining, decision-making software, and voice-response programs, it isn’t hard to imagine a future in which human beings will increasingly interact with, and relate to, computer-based intelligent entities.

I’m using that latter phrase cautiously, perhaps somewhat fearfully, in order to avoid characterizing these systems as possessing certain, dare I say, human qualities? But the characterization may be inevitably unavoidable. Human interaction with computer-based systems is on a bullet train to God only knows where.

Evidence of a growing, deepening relationship between human beings and computer-based systems is all around us. From the knowledge worker who performs tasks and chores in front of a computer screen, to the average citizen who spends increasing amounts of time with their smart phone or on a social network, to the consumer who interacts with a voice system to solve a service or product problem -- life today is about relating to systems about as much as it is about relating to other flesh and blood people. We have truly entered a new dimension of the machine age, and one whose rules are largely yet unwritten.

All of these thoughts swirl about in a new firm called “Her”. Directed by Spike Jonze and starring Joaquin Phoenix, the movie is ostensibly about how Theodore, played by Phoenix, falls in love with his computer’s operating system played, in voice only, as Samantha, by the actress Scarlett Johansson. Theodore and Samantha don’t just have a virtual experience; they have a deep, emotional relationship with the same highs and lows, doubts, and phases as two flesh and blood people would have. In fact, the other flesh and blood people who Theodore interacts with don’t think there is anything unusual about a person having a love affair with a computer operating system -- except, it should be noted, for Theodore’s wife, who he divorces in the film. Theodore and Samantha even go on a double date with two of Theodore’s flesh and blood friends.

Just clever science fiction? While the film is indeed about what love is, or could be, in an age of human-like, intelligent entities, it also raises many fascinating questions about what is real, what is human, and what our relationship can, or should be, with the increasingly intelligent systems around us.  

Samantha not only learns and grows like a human being, she also “feels”. She feels joy, happiness, sadness, even doubt – all human qualities. Samantha also grows emotionally and intellectually. In one portentous scene, Samantha confesses to Theodore that while she is speaking to him, she is speaking to hundreds of others simultaneously and developing other relationships. But if Theodore and Samantha are truly in love, should they be allowed to legally marry? Should thinking, feeling, growing systems have legal rights, Constitutional status, accrued vacation time?

These may seem like far-fetched questions, but are they? Flash forward 25 years and what do you think we will see in our factories, in our stores, in our homes, and, most importantly, in how people relate to objects and other people. Today, we are all talking about the Internet of Things, which may be a precursor to a world in which objects and people are indistinguishable only by their IP addresses. Tomorrow, intelligent robots will increasingly run our factories and tidy our homes. Intelligent systems will manage much of commerce. And people, it seems, will be spending more time with so-called intelligent entities than they do with other, flesh and blood people. So who’s to say what’s “human”, what’s real, what love is?

The answer, it seems to me, can only be found in one place – with us. We will have to decide where the lines are; how far we want to go with embedding intelligence into systems; how much we want to automate our factories and our homes; how much of our time and existence will be spent in the “digital” world.

We just have to accept that, for better or worse, we are in the driver’s seat of that bullet train to God only knows where. Like many things divine, He is leaving it up to us.

Written by David Brousell

Global Vice President, General Manager and Editorial Director of the Manufacturing Leadership Council

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