January 20, 2014

Guest Post: Ben Shneiderman on "Her"

My colleague, Prof. Ben Shneiderman wrote the following review of the recent movie "Her". I post it because it reflects Shneiderman's long-time argument that anthropomorphizing computing systems is neither effective nor appreciated by users. Although "Ask Alex" on www.united.com is an example that has been running for at least 1.5 years so why is it apparently successful there? And while Siri may not be in the news much anymore, Apple hasn't pulled it from iOS either. Time will tell if Shneiderman's prediction that all such anthropomorphic technologies will disappear.

Shneiderman's observations that "the need for physicality, exclusivity, and full disclosure are central to human relationships"may seem obvious when you read his argument, but it is this clarity of recognition that makes the review valuable. This much longer review in Wired where these issues never take center stage make the point that the "obvious" is only such if you are tuned to what is important.


Review of Her (the film)
    Ben Shneiderman (1/12/2014)

This creative, clever film depicts current fantasies about how an OS could have a “real” loving relationship with a person.  The emotional empathic tone of Theodore and the charming voice of Samantha make compelling conversation, that seduces Theodore and the audience for a while.  But Samantha’s total misreading of human physicality emerges when she sends a surrogate body, which Theodore rejects.  When she reveals that she is having 641 simultaneous loving discussions, their relationship hits a brick wall.

The need for physicality, exclusivity, and full disclosure are central to human relationships, but Samantha’s programmers failed to realize even those basic requirements.  Of course, they fail in so many other ways, but the screenwriters cleverly manipulate the audience to go along with the perfect partner fantasy.  Scarlett Johansson skillfully says all the right things with delightful empathic intonation, reminding us of our powerful attraction to supportive comments, thoughtful suggestions, vulnerable phrasing, and loving teases.

The filmmakers are right in reminding us of our growing infatuation with mediated relationships.  Real people need real love, not artificial substitutes or technology distractions.  So, will audiences turn off their phones and turn on to their partners, family, and friends to express genuine feelings?  I hope so.

This film continues to promote the misguided belief that humans want technological partners and avatar-based machines.  Consumer rejection of anthropomorphic technologies has been consistent for the past half century (Tillie the Teller, Postal Buddy, Ken the butler, Clippie, Ananova, etc.) but new generations of designers keep coming up with fresh versions, which will also disappear.

This future technology portrayal continues the 50-year old Star Trek/Star Wars tradition of using voice communications to let the audience know what is happening, and use emotional tone effectively.  However, the future of computing will be more visual than verbal.  Voice is important for human relationships, but can’t keep up with the human mind’s desire for information abundance and swift decisions.

The film also might trigger reflections on the merits of autonomy and interdependence.  The mistaken model of autonomous machines has dangers, and the need for human balance between autonomy and interdependence needs modern reinterpretations to fit evolving technology.  Human locus of control is an essential design guideline, even as technology sophistication grows.

Prof. Ben Shneiderman          ben@cs.umd.edu
Dept of Computer Science   301-405-2680  
A.V. Williams Building             www.cs.umd.edu/~ben
University of Maryland          www.cs.umd.edu/hcil
College Park, MD 20742        Twitter: @benbendc


Jonathan Grudin said...

Is there empirical support for the claim that "the need for physicality, exclusivity, and full disclosure are central to human relationships" preventing simulacra from succeeding? We are told pornography is immensely successful in every medium, lacking all three, as the movie comically notes in the dead cat sequence at the beginning. As the Wired article notes the movie was a fresh, original look at human relationships, using the OS as a way to step back and see the water we swim in, so to speak. The Singularity is unlikely to arrive this century, but it's a good movie.

Ben Shneiderman said...

My three subjective attributes of human relationship can have many variations plus limitations, just as free speech does, so interpretation will evolve over time. There are some things that are not empirically testable. I agree about pornography, but that only seems to reinforce my point about genuine human relationships.