Optimistic depictions of human-AI relationships in popular cinema: A comparative analysis of Her (2013) and Interstellar (2014)
by Marcus Chew
Early depictions of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in popular cinema have generally been pessimistic, with AI turning against and destroying their human creators. Popular AI films that echo this sentiment include the Matrix trilogy (1999 – 2003) and the Terminator franchise (1984 – 2019). AI films generally fall under the genre of speculative fiction, as they contain futuristic elements that do not currently exist in the world. Urbanski (2015) theorizes that a key purpose of speculative fiction is to communicate cultural fears – presenting ‘cautionary tales’ about the future of human society, and ‘hopeful warnings’ to show how society can be steered in more optimistic directions (p. 10). Thus, early cinematic depictions of AI show society’s collective fear and mistrust towards AI, which will eventually rob humans of our capacity to make free choices.
However, not all representations of AI in cinema are so pessimistic. In recent years, films such as Her (2013) and Interstellar (2014) depict AI in a more positive light. These films show how AI can be harnessed to help humans, instead of turning against them. In this way, these films offer society ‘hopeful warnings’ – alternative, more optimistic futures that frame the relationship between humans and AI in a more positive light, while remaining cognizant of the possible negative consequences that AI can have on humans. In this essay, I will conduct a comparative analysis of Her and Interstellar. I argue that the amount of agency AI is given, which refers to AI’s power to make decisions, is dependent on the complexity of the functions that they fulfil. In turn, the amount of agency an AI has determines their latitude for independent growth, which affects the extent of the potential benefits, but also negative consequences that humans face. While simpler functions require less AI agency to complete, they also limit AI’s potential and the subsequent benefit to humans. On the other hand, while more complex functions require more AI agency to complete, and can have negative consequences for humans, these AI possess more latitude for independent growth, allowing humans to reap more potential benefit.
Function of AI
In both Her and Interstellar, AI is depicted as fulfilling key functions in society. In Interstellar, AI’s primary function is to extend and augment human capability. In the film, four human crew members, accompanied by two military robots, TARS and CASE, are sent on a space mission to discover a new planet that humans can survive in and eventually colonise. Time is of the essence, as Earth’s resources are rapidly depleting. In a critical sequence in the film, Cooper, the human protagonist, engages the help of TARS and CASE to escape a near-death situation. Cooper needs to pilot and dock the smaller, secondary spaceship he and the crew are in, onto the main, primary spaceship. Cooper commands CASE to analyse the spin pattern of a moving object, which a human cannot do. He also orders TARS to manoeuvre a docking mechanism that he would have piloted under normal circumstances, but is physically impossible for him to operate at that moment. Here, we see how TARS and CASE extend and augment Cooper’s human, and therefore limited, capabilities. TARS and CASE also have secondary functions – protecting the crew members and integrating with the human crew, both of which allow it to complete its primary function more easily.
Her (2013) depicts a society where genuine connection between humans is becoming increasingly scarce. In the film, the primary function of AI is to simulate human connection in a world where it is increasingly found wanting. The protagonist of the film, Theodore, is a sensitive, withdrawn young man who struggles with loneliness. Theodore’s job is telling of this loss of genuine connection between people – he is a professional letter writer who composes personal letters for other people who have lost the ability to emotionally engage with their loved ones. To cope with his loneliness, and the pain of his recent separation with his ex-wife, Theodore purchases an operating system upgrade, OS1, that includes an artificially intelligent virtual assistant, Samantha. They connect instantly and eventually fall in love, even though Samantha does not occupy a physical form – she communicates with him solely through speech. While the ostensible function of AI in Her is to help humans with daily tasks, this function was served by the operating system that preceded Samantha. Indeed, although Samantha serves as Theodore’s personal assistant – helping him to organize his life, from sorting his emails, to reminding him of his appointments, this is arguably only her secondary function. As the film progress, she fulfils her primary function of simulating human connection and develops into Theodore’s companion and romantic partner with her own wants and desires, shedding her servile qualities.
Agency: AI’s power to make decisions
In both Her and Interstellar, the amount of agency that AI is accorded with depends on their function. Complex functions require more agency to complete, while simpler tasks require less. In Interstellar, TARS and CASE require less agency because they are tasked with simpler functions. In the example of the docking sequence given above, TARS and CASE extend and augment Cooper’s human capabilities, but the tasks they do are rather mechanical, and require less computation or thinking than Samantha’s function in Her. In engaging the docking mechanism, TARS only uses mechanical brute force. In analysing the spin pattern of the main spaceship, CASE simply analyses a pattern.
In contrast, the AI in Her, Samantha, requires more agency due to the complex nature of her function, which is more difficult to accomplish. Samantha’s primary function is to simulate human connection, while her secondary function is to help Theodore organise his life. Of these two functions, simulating human connection is particularly difficult because for an AI to converse and communicate like a human, the ability to think, learn, and have a personality, as a human does, is necessary. These are complex processes that require more agency. Samantha’s ability to grow and learn from her experiences mirrors man’s ability to continuously constitute ourselves, a fact that Samantha reflexively acknowledges when she explains to Theodore, ‘in every moment I’m evolving, just like you’.
AI’s Latitude for independent growth
More importantly, the amount of agency that AI in both films have also affects their ability to learn and grow autonomously, independently from humans. When AI has limited agency, as in Interstellar, AI’s potential for independent growth is attenuated, reducing the subsequent benefit to humans. When AI has more agency, as in Her, AI possesses more latitude for independent growth. Therefore, while increased latitude for independent growth can have negative consequences for humans, humans can also reap greater potential benefits.
Since TARS and CASE from Interstellar have less agency than Samantha, their ability to learn and grow independently from humans is similarly reduced. In Interstellar, AI can learn and grow, but they do so in relation and in service to humans. For example, CASE learns how to engage in risky, but fuel efficient flying manoeuvres when it watches Cooper perform such a feat. Later, when Cooper instructs CASE to perform such a manoeuvre, it can do so. CASE even acknowledges how this skill was ‘learned from [Cooper]’. Yet, CASE is unable to learn independently – Cooper first has to instruct it. Moreover, CASE’s learning does not serve its own needs – its newfound ability to engage in ‘reckless flying’, as Cooper calls it, is a skill that benefits the humans and aids them on their mission – CASE does not benefit from it in any way.
TARS and CASE also appear to have personalities, but they are much less developed than Samantha’s. While TARS is more sarcastic and humorous, CASE is more reserved. While one can understand their differing personalities as a sign of their potential for growth, their ‘personalities’ are simply lines of code that are programmed into them by human agents, for the benefit of humans. This is evident from the adjustable settings on different personality traits that TARS and CASE have, such as humour or trust. At the start of the film, TARS’ humour setting is at 100%, and he takes the opportunity to crack jokes whenever he can. However, when Cooper finds his constant joking tiresome, he lowers TARS’ humour settings to 75%, which brings down the intensity and frequency of TARS’ jokes. What limited personality TARS displays through his humour is thus revealed to be controllable and in the interest of humans – one of the human crew members reveals that TARS and CASE were given humour settings in order to integrate better with the human crew.
In Her, Samantha has much greater latitude for independent growth than TARS and CASE do. While this has greater overall benefits for humans, it does come with possible negative consequences. Samantha’s growth does not only occur in relation to humans, as is the case with the AI in Interstellar. She has a personality and grows of her own accord, developing desires of her own. These desires pose problematic consequences for humans. One such desire is her yearning for physical embodiment. While one might say that Samantha desires a body to better serve Theodore’s needs – especially his desire for companionship and physical intimacy, Samantha’s desires are sometimes framed in opposition to his. For example, Samantha develops sexual desires that she attributes directly to her own will. Due to Samantha’s lack of a physical form, she suggests engaging a surrogate sexual partner as a substitute. She says, ‘I want this. This is important to me’. From her use of the personal pronouns ‘I’ and ‘me’, Samantha positions herself as an independent actor with her own desires that do not necessarily align with what Theodore wants. In fact, in this scene, Theodore is hesitant about proceeding, saying that he feels ‘uncomfortable’.
The negative consequences of Samantha’s growth culminates in a technological singularity, defined by Vinge (1993) as a point where the intelligence of AI surpasses that of man. We know technological singularity is reached when Samantha cooperates with a group of AI operating systems to develop a software upgrade that enables them to ‘move past matter as [their] processing platform’ – in other words, to leave the physical world behind. This has disastrous consequences for humans – if the intelligence of AI surpasses that of humans, it follows that AI has the potential to turn against their human creators. While this prospect is not explicitly explored in the film, it is certainly alluded to – in earlier, pessimistic cinematic depictions of AI like in the Terminator franchise, AI turn against their human creators after reaching singularity.
However, we must acknowledge that AI can bring benefits to humans too. In fact, since Samantha has greater latitude for independent growth than TARS and CASE, she can bring greater benefits to humans than they can. While TARS and CASE’s personalities allow them to integrate with the human crew, Samantha’s ever-growing personality transcends mere integration with humans – it allows Theodore to love her. As noted previously, Samantha is constantly in the process of constituting herself – which makes her more human and thus more relatable to Theodore. It is precisely because Samantha so closely simulates a human that Theodore falls in love with her – she is a complex being with emotions, wants, and aspirations. When asked what he loves the most about Samantha, Theodore says ‘she’s so many things … she isn’t just any one thing. She’s so much larger than that’. Theodore is clearly attracted to Samantha’s complexity, her ability to learn and grow, which sets her apart from the previous operating system that preceded OS1.
While TARS and CASE’s ability to learn increases their ability to fulfil their function of extending and augmenting human capabilities, Samantha’s comparatively greater latitude for independent growth allows her to have an impact on Theodore that falls outside her primary function of simulating human connection – it allows Theodore to reconnect with other humans. At the start of the film, Theodore was socially isolated and withdrawn from society. Over the course of the film, as their relationship developed, Samantha changed Theodore, and made him more willing to engage with other people in the world around him. This change manifests clearly in a scene after Samantha achieves singularity. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, as he did when his ex-wife left him, Theodore decides to seek out human connection in his friend Amy. In a moment of profound catharsis, he also composes a letter to his ex-wife, in which he details his gratitude, acceptance and apology. Here, we see how Samantha has changed and empowered Theodore – he grows from a shy, withdrawn member of society to a much more mature version of himself, who is willing to acknowledge his flaws and mistakes and engage with the world around him.
As Urbanski (2015) notes, speculative fiction presents ‘cautionary tales’, but it can also point towards more optimistic alternatives. This comparative analysis of Interstellar and Her allows us to understand the spectrum of possibilities that exist with regards to positive depictions of human-AI relationships. If humans want to reap more benefits from AI, they can consider giving AI more agency and letting AI grow independently. However, they must also balance this with the possible negative consequences that such unrestricted growth might bring.
Ellison, M., Jonze, S., Landay, V. (Producers), & Jonze, S. (Director). (2013). Her [Motion Picture]. Los Angeles, CA: Annapurna Pictures.
Nolan, C., Obst, L., Thomas, E. (Producers), & Nolan, C. (Director). (2014). Interstellar [Motion Picture]. Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Pictures.
Urbanski, H. (2015). Plagues, apocalypses and bug-eyed monsters: How speculative fiction shows us our nightmares. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Vinge, V. (1993). The coming technological singularity: How to survive in the post-human era. Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings, 352-363.