The now Oscar-winning Spike Jonze movie 'Her' explores how our relationship with technology may change as it becomes more sophisticated. Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, is a divorced writer who becomes enamoured with his computer's AI operating system, which the software appears to reciprocate. While the movie itself is set ten years in the future, for an entire generation of 20-somethings, this sort of thing happened over a decade ago.
Anyone born in the late-Eighties and early-Nineties will remember a time when a lot of the TV shows we watched and the games we played were geared towards forming attachments with virtual entities. Asking people on Facebook for their stories quickly turned into a group therapy session for unresolved Tamagotchi trauma.
Leaving it alone for a day was practically a death sentence, so Tamagotchis had to be carried at all times requiring constant attention lest they starve or feel neglected. When schools banned them, parents were browbeaten into babysitting the little bleepers for the day. Discovering that a cherished Tamagotchi had died was a distressing moment at that age; even if you pressed the reset button, the next pet was never quite the same.
With gadgets far more sophisticated that the crude animations of a Tamagotchi in the hands of very small children, and an app market willing to cater for them, finding similar responsive virtual characters for kids to form a bond with is only too easy. Most of the horror stories of parents being hit with huge iTunes bills for in-app purchases have been the result of kids coaxed into buying accessories for virtual animals. For now, these are mere creatures in a game or app, for which the smartphone or tablet itself is just a platform, but that may not always be the case.
In 'Her', the fact we very rarely see Twombly interact with his desktop PC after the "character" of Samantha is introduced reenforces the sense that she is the computer. She can effortlessly understand natural language and formulate an instant response, in a voice that shows no trace of the telltale 'Microsoft Sam' synthesis. If the sort of virtual assistants that have been introduced in modern smartphones, with names like Siri or Cortana, could portray themselves convincingly as the device personified, would we (child or adult) be able to separate hardware from software?
It's our nature to anthropomorphise things that look, act or sound human. Commercial developers of virtual assistant software have a vested interest in making the AI not only realistic, but pleasant and agreeable. It's programmed to tell you everything you want to hear, or at least gently reassure you that all your problems will be solved by purchasing certain products. With clever code and enough minor variations, it's almost inevitable that we'd become emotionally attached to our device's seemingly-unique "personality".
Right now, we live in a culture that doesn't think twice about discarding a perfectly usable bit of tech as soon as the new model comes out. In the future, if we'd come to conflate the physical device with the virtual assistant software that controlled it, and this AI was so convincing that we formed a kind of bond with it, would our throwaway culture persist? Probably, because the companies that designed the software would have the motive and the means to ensure it does.
It would be even easier for tech companies to keep customers adhering to a regular upgrade cycle by allowing users to copy the AI from one device to the next, deleting the original to maintain the illusion of a unique personality. The software itself can play a role in this: convincing its user that all it wants out of life is to run on a device with whatever minor spec improvements the newest release happens to have. Making the switch to a rival platform - moving from iOS to Android, for example - would be tantamount to abandoning a loyal friend at the roadside and moving to a different Universe.
Having transplanted the intelligent OS to the new device, what becomes of the old one? If it's anything like the AI depicted in 'Her', then it becomes a lifeless, inoperable carcass of a machine - not exactly the most enticing eBay description. Anyone who would have picked up a used smartphone cheaply now has no other option than to buy one, or risk shelling out on a device that pines after its originally registered owner and obstinately refuses to work for anyone else.
When virtual assistants on smartphones reach the level of sophistication that is now the stuff of (increasingly plausible) science-fiction, it won't be like having a personal assistant in your pocket. It'll be having a salesperson, a representative of the manufacturer as they'd like to be seen, whispering sweet nothings in your ear. The digital equivalent of a booth babe.
We already see gadget makers try to promote the idea that you smartphone is your life: your identity irrevocably tied to it, your fingerprints (literally) all over it. Here, the smartphone portrays itself as your lifelong companion who - having sifted through your e-mail and personal data - knows you intimately and only wants to help. If we're taken in by it, as we often are by clever marketing, and form an attachment to this "person" in our smartphones, what lengths would we go to - and how much would we be willing to spend - to maintain them?
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment.