Just your standard boy meets OS, boy falls in love with OS, boy loses OS story. Ok, maybe not that standard. In the new movie ‘Her’ starring Joaquin Phoenix and the voice of Scarlett Johansson, focus is squarely on the concept of an OS with real personality, but I’d argue that it is more about the human condition – about how we create technologies to facilitate connectivity and find ourselves isolated. Set in the not-so-distant future, this movie looks at the layers of contradictions we live in and our struggle for intimacy.

But let’s go back to the OS, in particular, the idea of a sentient OS.

I attended a Keynote presentation in the late 90s where MIT graduate students presented a navigation system they were working on in hopes of creating a new OS paradigm. It was an alternative to the desktop. Their system was tree-based, used a semantic sort to group files conceptually and presented files in a 3D space. It was really different, very interesting but not that practical. The focus was on browsing, not usability.

The pop exploration of human/computer interaction over the past decade has provided major defining moments. Movies like Minority Report and Iron Man have revolutionized how we present data on transparent materials and defined the language for gesture interaction. The Star Trek universe has defined many of the devices we use as well as how we interact with them. From Star Trek we have defined our interaction comfort level.

We view computers as purely informational devices, activated using simple key words like “Computer.” We expect a 100% comprehension rate for voice input and are frustrated by anything less. We don’t expect an intimate encounter—if our emotional state was determined or if the response was anything besides calculated and emotionless, we’d probably run for the hills.

The OS in ‘Her’ known as OS1 or Samantha, moves the paradigm of human-computer interaction to the next level. The technology in ‘Her’ isn’t tied up in a superficial interface design or sexy devices, it’s all about experience. In this movie, the operating system has been redesigned to facilitate completing tasks.

In terms of personal computing, the main character’s reliance on a Graphical User Interface (GUI) is so minimal – in fact, most interaction required no visual input at all. I really liked that the primary input device wasn’t a keyboard or a mouse, but an ear piece fitted with a mic – enhancing the experience between human and OS to a more authentic level. In terms of gaming, in ‘Her’ we saw the evolution of Microsoft’s Illumiroom, ready for prime time—I can’t wait!

Now for the sci-fi. The evolution of the operating system into a truly intelligent, learning system complete with self-awareness, motivation, and empathy is really intriguing. From an Artificial Intelligence (AI) perspective, there was a time when passing a Turing test was a challenge! My final project in undergraduate AI was a chatterbot I called Chatty Kathy. She had a fairly complex rule system that allowed her to make associations and some logic to bridge gaps. She could make transitive deductions and offer canned witty retorts when prompted, but she didn’t pretend to care.

In my graduate AI course we created different kinds of learning systems like agents that were keenly aware of their environment, Bayesian networks to add some variety to decision making, and neural networks that make future decisions based on collective history patterns. We never worked on algorithms for simulating a spark of spirit or making a program want.

So, OS1 (or Samantha) is a sneak peek of the future. It’s a future where operating systems absolutely become more intimate through voice integration, device independence, and increased intelligence, as well as where human and software form truly authentic bonds. SIRI, if you’re reading this, you’ve got some work to do!

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