April 2016

Volume 31 Number 4

[Don't Get Me Started]

Gods and Fools

By David Platt | April 2016

David PlattAbraham Lincoln famously said, “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time. But you can fool yourself any time.” (Or something like that. April Fool.) We geeks are especially good at the last of these. Before long, though, we won’t need to do it anymore.

I just finished watching the movie “Her,” starring Joaquin Phoenix as a lonely depressed geek and Scarlett Johansson as the voice of his AI bot girlfriend Samantha. She’s like Siri or Cortana or Alexa, on mental steroids. I wondered how a brilliant bot like her fell for a dweeb like him. And then it struck me: that’s precisely the point. She was built to bond to her user, because no one else would.

This idea of constructing an ideal partner, rather than finding one in the wild, occurs throughout human history. The earliest reference I can find is the ancient Cypriot sculptor Pygmalion. He sculpted a beautiful statue, then prayed to Aphrodite for a bride who would be “the living likeness of my ivory girl.” Aphrodite granted his wish by bringing the statue to life. Shakespeare used this idea in “A Winter’s Tale,” George Bernard Shaw’s play, “Pygmalion,” brought it to 20th century London, “My Fair Lady” set it to music and the Star Trek episode, “I, Mudd,” showed it backfiring. Robert Heinlein’s “Time Enough for Love” projects it 2,200 years into the future (about as far as the original Pygmalion was in the past): His self-aware computer character Minerva falls in love with a human.

But the work that most resembles “Her” is Lester Del Rey’s 1938 science fiction short story, “Helen O’Loy” (bit.ly/1naYFWp and downloadable as a PDF at bit.ly/1QnJO3h). Dave, a near-future robot repairman, invents artificial endocrine glands that provide emotional capabilities to robots—an early analog approach, rather than today’s digital. He and his partner Phil splice these into an off-the-shelf robot and, of course, she falls in love with him. They name her Helen for her beauty, and O’Loy for the alloys from which she is constructed. And she proceeds to light up their hitherto-empty lives.

How can human/bot love work? Obviously, physical bodies pose an obstacle. Minerva’s friends clone a human body for her from carefully selected genes, so she’s all set. In the obligatory love­making scene in “Her,” we hear suggestive audio but the screen is dark. Samantha later recruits a surrogate to perform the physical acts, but it doesn’t work out the way the characters want. Helen is built from rubber and metal, apparently quite well: “You know how perfectly I’m made to imitate a real woman … in all ways. I couldn’t give him sons, but in every other way …”

Normally a physical goddess like this wouldn’t pay attention to geeks like us, but we can program them to be attracted to the way we actually are: “Oh, you have such beautiful love handles.” What geek could resist?

We haven’t quite reached the point of Cortana evolving into Samantha. We still need to assist in our own deception, as I wrote last November (msdn.com/magazine/mt620019). But I foresee the day when humanity will no longer need to call on gods or fiction or even denial to attain the unattainable.

We are the new gods, creating in our own image. Starting out crude, limited, buggy—and what’s more human than that? But constantly developing, improving; occasionally disrupting—and what’s more human than that, either? The mythologies we instantiate will echo forward from a strangely prescient past. Those ancient Greeks were onto something; it just took us a while to become able to build what they thought of.

The line between reality and virtuality gets blurrier by the day. At what point do they become indistinguishable? I wish I could just say “April Fool” and end this piece. But the seductiveness of our fool’s universe grows daily as technology progresses. How long until we refuse to leave it, thereby dooming the human species? As Phil says at the end of the story: “I’m an old man now and can view things more sanely; I should have married and raised a family, I suppose. But … there was only one Helen O’Loy.”

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.

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