Thursday, December 19, 2013

Before You Head Out To See "Her"

Take a few minutes to re-read Lester del Rey's 1938 SF classic, "Helen O'Loy":
Two young men, a mechanic, Dave, and a medical student, Phil, collaborate on modifying a household robot, originally meant only to cook and clean. They are more successful than they intended; despite the robot's household programming, it develops emotions. The robot, named "Helen O’Loy", falls in love with Dave. Dave initially avoids her and rejects her advances, but after some time he marries her and they live together on his farm...
Or spin up the ancient VCR and watch "The Lonely":

Or look up the true story of ELIZA:
ELIZA is a computer program and an early example of primitive natural language processing. ELIZA operated by processing users' responses to scripts, the most famous of which was DOCTOR, a simulation of a Rogerian psychotherapist. Using almost no information about human thought or emotion, DOCTOR sometimes provided a startlingly human-like interaction. ELIZA was written at MIT by Joseph Weizenbaum between 1964 and 1966.

When the "patient" exceeded the very small knowledge base, DOCTOR might provide a generic response, for example, responding to "My head hurts" with "Why do you say your head hurts?" A possible response to "My mother hates me" would be "Who else in your family hates you?" ELIZA was implemented using simple pattern matching techniques, but was taken seriously by several of its users, even after Weizenbaum explained to them how it worked.
The question of what it means to be sentient and who does (and does not) count as "human" has always been central to SF. And once you add in loneliness and the human need for love, complicated questions about the true nature of an artifact we ourselves created -- Is it merely mimicking sentient behavior or does it somehow really understands me?  Does it really really care about me? -- immediately arise.

Her might very well be a fine new movie.

It is helpful to remember that it is also a very old story.


Anonymous said...

I like that you assume that your audience is re-reading the story (as well they should be)

Anonymous said...

Don't forget Ellison's "Demon with a Glass Hand". It ran on the "Outer Limits", and I still can't get it out of my head.

Frank Stone said...

Holy cow -- I remember ELIZA! My sister and I would play with the program on our friend's computer back in the early '80s. It was characterized as "Dr. Eliza I. Sexat, Ph.D., F.R.S., O.B.E., B.S., and more B.S."

And speaking of the TZ episode "The Lonely", it was only recently that I began thinking about how utterly ludicrous the setup for the story is: It posits a time in which the crime of murder is so rare and bizarre and terrifying that the condemned murderer is not just exiled, but exiled on a friggin' asteroid (maximum security prisons and deserted islands being obsolete, apparently) -- and not only that, but the government evidently has So Much Money that it can afford the mind-boggling expense of sending a spaceship to the asteroid three times a year to deliver life-preserving supplies to that single exiled prisoner. That's some fugged-up shite right there! The one bit of sanity in that scenario is that the asteroid-exile program was apparently discontinued (maybe the bean-counters finally sobered up).

Cirze said...

I remember that TZ episode too, Dg.

It was and is one of my favorites, but not because of the plot or SF silly stuff.

What entranced me as a child was that scientists could make a machine with enough humanity in its form and responses (lifelikeness) that the viewers were as torn morally when she was abandoned as the man with whom she was involved.

I remember screaming "No!" at the TV when he turned away from her.

I thought it one of the best TV shows of its time due to its desire (Rod Serling's desire, I thought) to show these complicated human emotions (even programmed into a computer) and challenge its audience to consider their decisions.

Thanks for the memory.