Technology is often portrayed as ultimately robbing us of our humanity. The apocalyptic end-game portrayed in movies like The Terminator and The Matrix aligns with a broadly held fear of a future in which we’re subjugated by our robot overlords.
This darker view is certainly more popular than the perspective conveyed in Spike Jonze’s recent film, Her, in which an artificially intelligent operating system inspires our protagonist to re-connect with his innate humanity—a connection he struggled to find in his relationships with flesh-and-blood beings (BTW, if you’re interested in Her, don’t miss Christine Rosen’s fantastic analysis published in the January 09 edition of The Weekly Wonk).
Maybe I’m just a naive optimist, but I subscribe to the second view. I don’t believe that we’re destined to be enslaved by our technology; I don’t believe that the inevitable conclusion to a story that starts with the birth of true AI is humanity’s doom. Unfortunately, there aren’t many counter examples that are quite as compelling as a James Cameron joint, so I was very excited to come across this fantastic piece from today’s print edition of the New York Times: To Siri, With Love—How One Boy With Autism Became B.F.F.’s With Apple’s Siri.
Here’s a snippet:
Gus had never noticed Siri before, but when he discovered there was someone who would not just find information on his various obsessions but actually semi-discuss these subjects tirelessly, he was hooked...
For most of us, Siri is merely a momentary diversion. But for some, it’s more. My son’s practice conversation with Siri is translating into more facility with actual humans. Yesterday I had the longest conversation with him that I’ve ever had. Admittedly, it was about different species of turtles and whether I preferred the red-eared slider to the diamond-backed terrapin. This might not have been my choice of topic, but it was back and forth, and it followed a logical trajectory. I can promise you that for most of my beautiful son’s 13 years of existence, that has not been the case.
Of course, this is what we in the geek community might describe as an edge case, but I think it nonetheless illustrates the very real potential for technology to do so much more than just compute. For some, the notion of having anything beyond a functional relationship with their tech will always seem alien. But for kids like Gus—by which I don’t mean kids with autism, but rather kids who’ve only known a world in which computing is ubiquitous—it’s the notion that technology must remain inert and lifeless that will be unfathomable.
Near the end of the Times piece, its author, Judith Newman, who is also Gus’s mom, makes a wonderful observation:
Somewhere along the line, I am learning that what gives my guy happiness is not necessarily the same as what gives me happiness. Right now, at his age, a time when humans can be a little overwhelming even for the average teenager, Siri makes Gus happy.
It’s the Guses of the world, now 13, who will define the next epoch of computing, and that’s why I believe I’m right to be hopeful about the future. He and others of his generation are growing up with the conviction that technology can and should enrich people’s lives—both functionally and emotionally. They’re also unburdened by the psychological baggage that us geezers haul around with us when it comes to tech.
Now, I don’t think this next generation’s more humanistic approach to computing will lead us all to instant nirvana. But I do think that it will mark an important and positive milestone in the evolution of our species, which is still in a period of technological adolescence. All that being said, this is just one interpretation of the human-computer relationship exemplified in Her and Newman’s piece for the Times. If you’re interested in a counterpoint, look no further than Jason Farago’s much darker analysis, in which he labels Her a horror film and calls it “the scariest movie of 2013.” While I don’t agree with his take, I did enjoy his argument.