Samantha, Jane, Gaia and ruing over annoyingly primitive human-machine interface

The first thing that hit me when Theodore finished installing the new OS and started ?speaking? to ?her?, in Spike Jonze?s Her? was Jane, from Speaker For The Dead, part 2 of the Ender Series, by Orson Scott Card. I wasn?t really keen on reading the 2nd part after finishing the first book (that I thoroughly enjoyed) after seeing a lot of review say that it was way too philosophical and was completely unlike the first book.

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But then, oddly enough, after watching the movie version of Ender?s Game, I felt compelled to know what happened to the Hive Queen and I quickly procured the audiobook. I actually liked the 2nd part more than Ender?s Game, in the end! And also fell in love with Jane, much like Theodore did, with Samantha.

Beyond the striking similarity between Samantha and Jane, a few other strands of ideas occupied my mind as I completed watching Her.

Sentient machines

The strand of sentient machines has always been a fascination with science fiction. Right from Skynet in the Terminator series, to Marvin, the paranoid android, in Douglas Adams? The Hitchhiker?s Guide to the Galaxy (the name of this darn blog is an ode to the man!) we have had intelligent machines, but Jane and Samantha, besides being intelligent, are also self-aware? sentient.

To fall in love with a machine only because of its (her) intelligence reminded me – completely random! – of a short story by Woody Allen, called The Whore of Mensa. Read it here – it?s an interesting short story that is full of Woody’esque humor but also makes a very serious point that I’m going to explore in the next paragraph.

If bodily necessities are glazed over (as they are, in Her), the human-sentient machine affair seems like a very plausible set-up given the complications in present-day relationships and also taking into account that people are becoming increasingly aloof and private with the onset of social networks, which, paradoxically, connects people more than ever, but also isolates them in the physical world.

Add to this, the intelligence a sentient being can bring into our everyday lives – Jane helped Ender significantly in the Speaker book. It was a lot like having a 2nd, super-intelligent brain at your disposal all the time. Even the way they were imagined – Jane and Samantha – seems vastly similar. Both are worn in the ear – Jane, was a ?jewel? in Ender?s ear, while Samantha is an ear-piece in Her. Both can be switched off at will, though the one switch-off in Speaker changes the relationship between Jane and Ender forever. In Her, Theodore switches Samantha off many times and she even calls him when she wants, via his phone!

In Samantha, the possibility of her OS self speaking to other people?s OSs via the internet is also explored and it ends in a fascinating premise towards the end of the film. I really wish that thread is explored as a sequel focusing on Samantha and her friends… they would end up becoming Skynet? The interesting parallel to that line of thought is how Asimov?s Foundation?s Edge utilised the concept of the planet Gaia, where, under the guidance of robots, humans evolved their ability to become part of the planet?s group consciousness.

So, we have Samantha and her fellow OSs forming a group, but they are the same, belonging to the network of consciousness.

Then, we have Jane, in the Speaker, who is part of the ansible, though the possibility of other Janes is not fully explained. But Jane interacts with a lot of people on her own, not as Jane, but as an intelligent machine, while she interacts as herself, the sentient Jane with just two humans, in the book.

Finally, we have Asimov?s Gaia world where humans, plants and animals live as one conscious super-being (used in planet Pandora too, by James Cameron), also hinted at within the lives of the Pequeninos, in Speaker for the Dead.

Human-machine interface

The more I recalled Her, the more I was annoyed with the prospect of typing into my phone and laptop to get things done. I do understand that speech-recognition hasn?t evolved in our times at all and it remains, at best, clunky. But the way it was polished in Her was honestly very, very tempting and makes me feel like we?re living in primitive ages of human-machine interface.

The scenes of people talking to themselves in Her are disconcerting, no doubt, but with full-fledged Google Glass usage in the near future, we might just see that happening, with the Glass replacing the ear-piece. The nifty trick Theodore uses to let Jane ?see? what he is seeing (a pin used in the bottom of his shirt pocket, to let his phone jut out of his pocket just enough for the phone?s lens protruding) is something Glass does better, in a more elegant way, though that elegance is in very early stages of evolution.

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As we are exploring other forms of machine interface – like the swipe and holographic depictions that help us interact in easier ways, text input continues to be the most painful. I always used to wonder if there?s a possibility of having speech-recognition app where we dictate letter by letter, instead of word by word (if that?s what is causing the clunkiness). The solution is clunky I understand, but I guess if we type letter by letter, why not try that for text input via voice too?

PS: As I finished writing this, I notice a Kickstarter project called The Dash – wireless, smart in-ear headphones! This doesn?t connect the net, yet, but imagine it connecting to the internet and also managing speech recognition! I think we are getting closer to ?her? now 🙂

PS 2: I don?t know if you noticed? in one of the early scenes in Her, the news report mentions an impending merger between India and China! I mean? wow!

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