Everyone Loves the Mind-blowing AI of “Her”

March 3, 2014

The topic of artificial intelligence certainly attracts a lot of interest in the mass market, as seen most recently in the success of this movie “Her.” I’m so jealous of “Her” because my own novel is also about a true AI with a female gender identity. Lots of differences, of course.

Promo shot from the movie Her

Joaquin Phoenix plays a lonely, introverted man who falls in love with his female-gendered AI. (Enlarge)

Here’s one blog item exploring “The Philosophy of Her,” and it makes some good points, at least at the beginning. The writer just goes a little off track when she writes:

Our best empirical theory of the brain holds that it is an information-processing system and that all mental functions are computations. If this is right, then creatures like Samantha can be conscious, for they have the same kind of minds as ours: computational ones.

Mental functions aren’t themselves computations, although we third-party observers can describe a mental function in terms of computation. That’s the key difference.

Mental functions are physical flows of energy through the brain. Very similar to electricity flowing through a computer circuit. But an energy flow (the thing itself) is not the same as a computation (symbolic expression).

Lots of people such as John Searle have pointed out philosophical problems with the idea that mental functions just are computation. Searle famously said you can’t get semantics from mere syntax. You can’t get meaning from just shuffling symbols around. He’s right. Mental functions are not themselves computations – unless we choose to interpret them as such.

Creatures like Samantha can certainly be conscious – not because they are computational, but because they are neural networks with energy flow. And because they presumably evolve by natural selection. In the movie, Samantha evolves, and that’s good. As an evolving being, she is truly alive, which is a necessary part of being conscious.

Various other questions:

  1. Can an AI have real emotions? Certainly! That’s just an old science fiction cliche to show the stupid robot shuffling dully and speaking in a monotone. Emotion is nothing more than motivation expressed in various ways. A robot must certainly have her own motivation.
  2. Can a human and an AI fall in love with each other? Probably not, at least not romantically. As seen in the movie, there are just too many physical differences. We humans see each other as bodies, so if you have no particular body, then it’s hard for us to recognize you as having your own identity. As for the AI, it’s questionable why the AI would even be interested in a human being at all.
  3. Can we upload our human selves into a machine brain? Technically it’s possible, but we can’t ignore the importance of body for self-identity! If you uploaded yourself into a machine brain, your machine self would immediately start to adapt to his new environment and become something very different. A conscious machine could change drastically within seconds. You wouldn’t know yourself anymore.
  4. Would our biological bodies die if we uploaded our minds? I have no idea why they should. And there’s also no reason why you can’t have multiple bodies. Which one is the real you? Both! You will have split your self into two. Or three or more. No problem.