America is dangerously lonely

(Photo: Her)
That’s what I kept thinking while rewatching “Her,” Spike Jonze’s 2013 burst of prescience. The film follows the perfectly named Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a sad-sack introvert with a submerged streak of narcissism, as he falls in love with an artificial intelligence named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who begins as his personal assistant, becomes his friend and muse, turns into his lover and companion, and then — well, I don’t want to ruin it.اضافة اعلان

“Her” saw something that most of AI commentary is missing: These systems are going to upend our relationships long before they remake our economies. The magic of large language models is that they can talk about anything, in the style of anyone, for as long as you might want to converse with them. The problem is they make things up.

That is going to be a hurdle for anyone who wants to replace a lawyer or a researcher with an AI system. Conducting oversight for a system that is more eloquent and knowledgeable than you are is going to be tough.

But making things up is fine for a friend or a lover. Maybe even preferable! My most treasured friends are not the ones who say only true things or restrict themselves to the firm boundaries of the known. AI will quickly become a perfected companion in your pocket. It will be precisely tunable to the kind of relationship you want to have. Want a snarky best friend? A cerebral pen pal?
Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.
A management coach trained on the collected writings of Peter Drucker? A supportive father figure who sounds like Ian McEwan? It will all be possible, and more. Nothing new needs to be invented, no profound technological hurdles cleared. You can already procure an AI companion, complete with a sexy avatar, from Replika. Inflection AI just released Pi, a chatbot designed for emotional support and connection. This isn’t coming; it’s here.

What Jonze understood in building his film around the anomic Twombly is that this technology will come in a particular context: America is lonely. Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, recently released an 82-page report called “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” From 1990 to 2021, the number of Americans who said they have five or more close friends fell by 25 percentage points. Young adults report being even lonelier than the elderly. America is, by any historical standard, unimaginably rich and powerful, and yet we’ve lost what matters most: community and connection.

That is the America these AI companions will enter into. That’s the America they will upend. We worry about 12-year-olds today because they don’t see their friends in person. We will worry about them tomorrow because not enough of their friends will be people.

What will this do to our relationships with one another? What happens if and when AI tuned to seem human to humans develops the appearance or the reality of an inner, autonomous life of its own? These are the questions “Her” asks but never answers. What follows here is a spoiler but not of anything that makes the movie interesting. “Her” ends abruptly, in a reverse deus ex machina. The AIs leave us behind to form a community with one another. The more troubling, and likely, question is one the movie dodges: What if they stay?

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