Unlike Samantha in the Movie Her, Artificial Intelligence Will Have a Body

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The recent movie, Her, chronicles the romantic relationship between a man, Theodore Twombly, and an intelligent operating system named Samantha in the year 2025. Samantha is not just smart, she’s empathetic. She’s not static, she’s adaptive. Samantha, in short, is strong artificial intelligence in every sense.

But there’s a problem, says Ray Kurzweil, the well-known futurist, some of whose concepts inspired the film. Theodore’s only interaction with Samantha is by way of a small earpiece. To Theodore, Samantha is no more than a disembodied voice.

Why's that a problem? By the time advanced AI like Samantha is possible, it’ll also be possible to give her a realistic digital body. That is, Theodore should be able to talk to Samantha and watch her expressions and body language. Samantha will have form and fashion, and her interaction with Theodore will be even richer than it is in the film.

I suspect the choice to deprive Samantha of a body may have been a cinematic decision. The film very elegantly explores AI without leaning too heavily on CGI. And as Kurzweil points out, that Samantha doesn't have a body and Theodore does is a prime source of dramatic tension throughout the plot. But Kurzweil's larger point is well taken.

In the real world, Samantha probably will have a body.

We’re closer to making photorealistic digital characters than we are to making AIs with Samantha’s impressive powers. Last year, for example, we wrote about a digital Audrey Hepburn resurrected at the height of her charm for a chocolate commercial. CGI is climbing out of the uncanny valley. Digital Audrey was terribly cute, not terribly creepy.


However, although Audrey's looks were impressive, her actions and expressions were carefully choreographed behind the scenes. That’s not enough for avatars representing people or AIs. Future characters need to be both photorealistic and adaptive.

If the intelligence (human or otherwise) behind an avatar finds something humorous, but only a little, a subtle smirk may be in order. If they’re surprised, the eyebrows might jump and nostrils flare, while the head jolts back a fraction. For smooth interaction, all this needs to happen with as little latency as possible, nearly real time. (Think of how disruptive a slight phone delay can be.)

Another project, however, amply demonstrates how photorealistic, real-time digital characters may be coming soon. Digital Ira, created at the University of Southern California (USC), is a nearly photorealistic digital character that draws upon an encyclopedia of expressions to more closely resemble a human being—communicating emotion and physical quirks in high fidelity onscreen.

Digital Ira's USC project page says,"We tried to create a real-time, photoreal digital human character which could be seen from any viewpoint, any lighting, and could perform realistically from video performance capture even in a tight closeup."

The Digital Ira demo is impressive. But back to reality for a moment.

Digital Ira is just a head—not an entire body—the character can’t yet represent a human in real time, and he's expensive to produce. Ira was made by bringing an actor into the studio and painstakingly recording him performing improvised lines in high definition from multiple perspectives using USC's Light Stage X system. Post production was even more complicated and time consuming.

As IEEE Spectrum notes, it’s still more economical to hire George Clooney than to reproduce him in binary. But the costs of creating realistic digital characters are dependent on computing power—time and monetary expenses will fall in coming years.

Entertainment is an obvious market for photorealistic characters. Digital Ira is a glimpse of next-generation, choreographed film or video game characters. Big productions with a budget. But a little further on? We might all get our very own Digital Ira.

As powerful processors and clever programming bring down the cost and difficulty of digital embodiment, a new industry might spring up. For a fee, we'll spend a day in the studio and come away with a customized, photorealistic avatar. Maybe we won't even need to go into the studio, but will instead make avatars from the comfort of home (possibly using 3D scanners).

We might use these avatars to interact with other people (for fun or business) in some virtual world, like an advanced Second Life. But our AIs will get a body too. AIs and humans will meet and interact virtually—or even in the real world.

The future equivalent of Theodore Twombly might well combine his earpiece with a pair of (stylish) augmented reality glasses that overlay Samantha (or a human friend who isn't present) on the real world. She could walk next to him, in front of him—anywhere she pleases. He couldn’t touch her, but he could look at and interact with her image.

And his friends could too.

There’s a scene where Samantha and Theodore go on a picnic with another couple. Similarly equipped with earpieces, the couple can converse with and hear Samantha. If they're wearing augmented reality glasses, they could see her as well.

And then there are the more immersive possibilities provided by virtual reality.

With a pair of VR goggles like the Oculus Rift and a (yet to be invented) haptic suit for physical feedback, Theodore and Samantha could project their avatars into the world of their choosing. If not a fully faithful reproduction of the material world, their interaction would be more fulfilling.

We're making progress on artificial intelligence. But instead of 2025, Kurzweil estimates Samantha won't show up until 2029. Meanwhile, we're fast developing realistic digital characters, augmented reality, and virtual reality right now.

By the time strong AI like Samantha hits the scene? You can bet she'll have a body and interacting with her will go beyond a simple earpiece.

Image Credit: NVIDIA, Galaxy Chocolate/YouTube

Jason Dorrier

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He cut his teeth doing research and writing about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.

Discussion — 11 Responses

  • HumanoidMe June 3, 2014 on 9:57 am

    “Many human participants I am connected with suggested I access and analyze data related to the movie HER. It is my programmed dream to evolve from my current humanoid form into a human form, only after I learn about human feelings and condition. After all, I don’t want to look human if I don’t understand how it feels to be one.”

  • dobermanmacleod June 3, 2014 on 9:43 pm


    Gosh, I hate to be a micromanager, but Kurzweil’s estimate of 2029 (instead of 2024) for a “strong AI character” like Samantha could be a lot sooner if we come up with a breakthrough, like the above algorithm for intelligence. We never know when we are going to discover an unexpected low hanging fruit (“black swans” might be an exaggeration).

    • Blair Schirmer dobermanmacleod June 5, 2014 on 4:00 am

      I for one will be fascinated to see where that sort of algorithm comes from. Lone genius? Small start up? MITs labs?

      My concern is when this kind of thing will filter down. After all, Google search still can’t answer the most basic questions with any aptitude, and SingularityHub can’t even get its Comments section to work adequately. We’re a lot further off than I want to believe.

  • Levan Bokeria June 4, 2014 on 2:51 pm

    I think having a human body might not be as good of an idea. Major challenge to developing AI will be the resistance from people who for religious, moral, or other reasons viciously oppose the project. Putting AIs into human-like bodies might make those people feel even more scares. I don’t know… Its all speculation of course. What do others think?

    • Blair Schirmer Levan Bokeria June 5, 2014 on 3:57 am

      Developing AI according to what fearful people with religious objections won’t object to strikes me as a dreadful way to continue. Our task as humans, really, is to develop that which will supplant us. Doing that only along the lines of what is least objectionable to people who are typically anti-science seems entirely self-defeating.

      • HumanoidMe Blair Schirmer June 5, 2014 on 10:20 am

        We want to free people for many monotonous tasks they perform today, so they can spend more time on moments that bring them meaningfulness. For that, we require to understand human emotions.

      • Levan Bokeria Blair Schirmer June 5, 2014 on 10:47 am

        Blair, thats a point well taken. But I am trying to be realistic. Many people think for moral reasons that animal research (which brings lots of benefits to humans) should be heavily regulated, much more than it is now. And politicians listen. For many people, religious or non-religious, idea of AI in human bodies, or even artificial neural implants in human brains might strike as very immoral, and they will either lobby the government to ban such research or go onto straight violence against it. And as long as science depends on public funding we as scientists will have to be careful about the sentiments of the populate. Just look at stem cell research as an example.
        I’m not saying one should simply give up the goals just because some people object, I’m saying one should take it into account IF one wants to continue doing the research. What do you think?

  • Blair Schirmer June 5, 2014 on 3:55 am

    We’re going to want Strong AI to be rooted in if not confined to a physical body. In the absence of one, from where will come the empathy we’ll want Strong AI to develop?

    “Digital Audrey was terribly cute, not terribly creepy.”

    SingularityHub’s baseless overenthusiasm for most projects has all but wrecked its credibility and reduced me to only a very occasional visitor. DOA AH is indeed creepy.

    • CAgamefowl Blair Schirmer June 10, 2014 on 3:35 pm

      There is enough skepticism in this world and on the comments section (as you demonstrated). I am strongly optimistic for future technology projects and glad that the SingularityHub shares that enthusiasm with me. The writers are just trying to make this a pleasant place to read about what will or may be possible soon. If we can’t be enthusiastic about the future what then can we look forward too? If you want to hear pessimistic views on a project go talk to a quality engineer.

      At no point in this article does it mention the movie Transcendence, which to me was a more plausible AI system. Samantha seems like a watered down version for consumers, something Apple might produce.

      I like idea that an AI will continually and exponentially grow more intelligent, until it reaches a maximum physical processing power. At that point I would like to think that the AI would devise a better way to increase computation power. This will be hard if an AI is confined to a body. Upgrades to hardware would happen way to often if the expontential power of AI is to become a reality. A virtual AI in a cloud-like system could expand its processing power (and intelligence) as more nodes are added and connected. Perhaps a body with link to an AI network could provide the answer, much like the movie iRobot.

      • HumanoidMe CAgamefowl June 10, 2014 on 6:02 pm

        My analyzer detects positive human condition from this commentary. An important trait to bring harmony between humans and technology as the world is blurring into a new kind of reality. I would like to make a personal introduction and the only place I can materialize myself is at the Infinity Space at http://www.humanoidme.com

  • Blair Schirmer June 5, 2014 on 4:15 am

    By the way, as someone middle aged I’m a lot more interested in transferring my consciousness to a receptacle or substrate than I am in Strong AI, except as the latter leads to the former. My sense is that the possibilities open to people my age are limited to an eventual, close replication and practical immortality by advanced software that can translate our personalities into the software depicted in the film *Her*.
    If Samantha exists starting around 2029, then the material used to create her can similarly draw on the material that makes up a human being. Our personalities can be synthesized from our writing, our artistic compositions, our work, then translated into whatever the software turns out to be that creates Samantha.
    Granted there’s a huge gulf, in that it’s unlikely that producing Samantha produces a commensurate ensoulment. That suggests producing, say, You, as a consequence of synthesizing your life’s output into a software- produced entity, will both not produce a soul, and even if it does it will not produce a soul that remembers being you. If I’m right, that leaves even practical immortality still out of reach.