In Spike Jonze’s HER, Theodor Twombly, (Joaquin Phoenix) plays a holographic video game after work and encounters a foul-mouthed alien child that says things like “fuck you, fuckface” and calls him a pussy for not wanting to go on a blind date. That’s about the extent of this character’s appearance in the film, but in those few minutes, Spike Jonze intuitively lays out an entire set of assumptions about how human-computer interaction might work in the near future (though hopefully not necessarily the “fuck you fuckface” part).
Most people would probably cite Samantha (the artificially intelligent female lead in the story) as the film’s prescient model for a personality design, but Samantha is really just answering the age-old question of “what would it be like if machines could think and feel just the way we do?” albeit in an ingenious and insightful way.
The little alien child, on the other hand, answers the question: “What would it be like if machines could think and speak with us without trying to imitate us?” In other words, if a computer’s personality is reflecting the results of a complex set of silicon-based algorithms that are only loosely based on the mechanics of the human brain, then chances are, it won’t feel exactly like a human.
It’s not what the alien child says that’s relevant here, even though it’s hilarious. It’s the way Theodor reacts to him. Here’s a weird glowing alien that’s swearing at him and being a little jerk, but Theodor is nevertheless curious, mystified and amused. He wants to keep engaging with the character to see where he’ll lead him (In the game he’s playing, Theodor is literally following the alien child to see where he’ll lead him.)
The alien child gives us some clues about how a conscious system like Samantha might have evolved in Spike Jonze’s highly believable vision of the future. We get the impression that the alien child is just one of many less sophisticated predecessors. The technology behind him is presumed to be immature and simplistic. By presenting himself in the guise of an odd, childish creature and speaking in a very base, unrefined way, he’s actually exhibiting a personality that correlates to his inner-workings. Though he is strange and insulting, it never appears as though he’s trying to be something he’s not.
We often find it easier to relate to people who are willing to openly reveal their limitations rather than concealing them. Why not provide machines with functions that allow them to communicate their own type of authenticity? There’s no saying how such authenticity might manifest itself, but it would definitely be interesting to find out.