Her poster, with Joachin PhoenixWhen will a computer pass the Turing Test?  December 18th.  Well, according to Hollywood, anyway.  That’s when “Her”, a film by Spike Jonze, opens in the US.  Critics who saw it at the New York Film Festival in October liked it enough to give it a 100% fresh rating on the Rotten Tomatoes review site, and Scarlett Johansson is being talked about as a serious Oscar contender even though she never actually appears in the film.

The plot involves a sensitive man played by Joaquin Phoenix who is upset by the failure of a long-term relationship.  He falls in love with the operating system of his new computer, named Samantha, voiced by Johansson.  Her needs and desires grow in step with his, and they strike up a friendship that deepens into love.

The film’s director, Spike Jonze, has a track record of making thought-provoking movies such as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, as well as the intriguing realisation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are.

Jonze says he began thinking about a virtual romance after exchanging emails with a chatbot.  “You could talk to it and tease it … and get a little banter going, getting mocked and so on. I got a sort of buzz thinking, this thing’s actually keeping up with me.”  The illusion didn’t last for long.  “After a couple of minutes you start to notice the cracks and the flaws. ‘Oh, this is a very cleverly written program’, I thought in the end.  But for those couple of minutes I got a very distinctive, tingly kind of buzz from the experience.”

When will the Turing Test be passed in real life?  No-one knows.  In July, Google chairman Eric Schmidt put it at five years away, but most people think it is further off than that – perhaps fifteen or twenty years away.  Maybe films like “Her” will wake more people up to the prospect of machines becoming consciousness.  That would be a good thing, because at this point we are not remotely prepared for it.

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