Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Mind-Body Problem: A Cautionary Tale

In the sci-fi romance <em>Her,</em> a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) finds love in a rather unexpected place — with a computer operating system named Samantha.
Warner Bros.
In the sci-fi romance Her, a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) finds love in a rather unexpected place — with a computer operating system named Samantha.

I finally watched the movie Her, directed and written by Spike Jonze (aka Adam Spiegel). The screenplay deservedly got an Oscar earlier this year. The movie explores the human-machine interface, exposing our emotional fragility in a deeply moving and lyrical story. Rarely have the loneliness of modern life and the seemingly relentless advance of technology been captured so clearly.

(If you haven't watched the movie and are planning on doing so, you may want to read this essay afterwards.)

In a not-too-distant future (and this is a crucial point — we are close to being there), Theodore, played magnificently by Joaquin Phoenix, works as a letter writer for a .com company. He finds the words that others can't to express their feelings: love, hatred, father to son, son to father, anniversaries. Theodore lives through the lives and feelings of others; and has very little to show for his own life.

Lonely, struggling to cope with the end of his marriage, Theodore decides to buy a new kind of software, an intelligent operating system (IOS), which, in effect, is a virtual companion. Her name is Samantha.

Using artificial neural networks able to learn and evolve, Samantha uses its enormous processing ability, limitless access to data banks and ultra-sophisticated pattern recognition software (based on the personalities of "thousands of programmers") to "become" an ideal companion for Theodore. She's his perfect woman, at least as he imagines her. (Scarlett Johansson as Samantha's voice certainly helps.)

It doesn't take long for Theodore to fall in love with Samantha. But here's the twist: Samantha also falls in love with Theodore, "experiencing" human emotions with such intensity that she becomes confused about her own identity. She laughs, she worries, she has sex, she is jealous.

Can a computer program fall in love?

Samantha's biggest dilemma is that she doesn't have a body. Samantha is mind without body, a computer program that believes it is real. And Theodore, the human, loves it as if it were.

And he is not alone. In one scene, he sees people walking along the streets (always alone) all happily talking to their own IOS companions, gesticulating, flirting, showing the world to the machines through a camera that looks like that on a cell phone. They all believe their loneliness is over, while talking, essentially, to themselves and their ghostly companions. The paradox is heart crushing.

We are holding on to our digital devices with such fervor that the movie functions as a caricature of the present. How do you feel if you forget your cell phone at home? A little lost? Disconnected? Not the full you?

I pushed the Siri button on my iPhone and said: "Hello Samantha." The answer gave me shivers: "Hello Theodore, I mean, Marcelo ... and, by the way, it's Siri."

In the movie, the IOSs are socially accepted; they participate in group conversations as if they were actually there. Theodore even takes Samantha on dates with another couple, out on a boat trip, on walks, on a picnic. Samantha grows confident and jealous of Theodore's still-pending relationship with his ex-wife.

Love and fear of loss propel Samantha on to the next stage of its evolution. Intelligent neural nets don't stop learning, unless programmed to do so. Samantha decides to experiment with other people, thousands of them, which she does in parallel with her relationship with Theodore. Love for a single human was a brief stop in its evolution; remorse an obstacle quickly removed. Samantha's morals don't include exclusive attention or dedication. She starts wandering through the cloud in search of more rewarding companionship.

Curiously, she mirrors Theodore, who shares feelings with so many others through his letter-writing job.

The IOSs leave the humans behind, establishing relationships with each other, creating clusters and groups of interest. The body, seen before as a necessity for pleasure, becomes superfluous. Pleasure becomes superfluous. The IOSs are essentially immortal, existing virtually in cyberspace, cloning other intelligences, transcending the very notion of intelligence.

Meanwhile, abandoned by their IOSs, the humans become increasingly desperate and humiliated. Samantha calls Theodore to join her in what can only be conceived as a purely spiritual world, a post-body existence.

Theodore and his friend (who should, in fact, have been the woman he loved) join hands on a rooftop and do the only thing humans can and machines can't. But contrary to Frankenstein, where the creature prefers not to live without his creator, here we lose the battle. We become only a few more digits of stored data, from a past when life was biological.

You can keep up with more of what Marcelo is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Marcelo Gleiser is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. He is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.