Does OS Samantha Really Love Theodore, or is She Just Programmed to Appear as if She Does?


“I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you,” Theodore Twombly says to his computer operating system, Samantha, at the end of “Her.” “Me too,” she replies, “Now I know how.”

The question of AI sentience has been under discussion for as long as movies have been around (see: “Metropolis”), but the possibility of AI love for a human has arguably never been explored to such depth as in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film.

Taking the film at face value, though, it seems as if all signs point towards true, mutual love between Theo and his OS girlfriend, who we only experience as a voice from Theo’s electronic earpiece (a postmodern Siri of sorts). Though they can’t hold hands or share a meal like a regular couple, they share other poignant moments: going on a double date with two of Theo’s open-minded human friends, composing and singing soft moonshine duets while alone together in the woods, even sharing in a verbal sexual experience. On the surface, Samantha’s love for Theo seems real, as real as any woman’s love for any man.

A cynic will be quick to point out, however, that perhaps it’s all a farce. After all, Samantha is an operating system, the world’s first artificially intelligent one, but an operating system nonetheless, designed by her programmers to be whatever Theo needs her to be. She is the product, he the customer. She the program, he the user. A good OS evolves and adapts itself to its user’s needs, and what need is more immediate and all-encompassing as that of human, or human-esque, compassion?

Then again, it’s hard to believe that Samantha would knowingly fake all those emotions. Especially as portrayed by Scarlett Johansson’s all-too-human voice, rich with nuance, audible joy and discernible pain, only the most hardened of scientific realists could venture that she’s merely a well-crafted actress.

Perhaps the better question worth asking is concerning the difference between perception and reality: just because Samantha believes her love is real, does that mean it is real? I’m reminded of that moment in “Blade Runner,” when replicant Rachael realizes that she’s not human, and that her memories are “implants,” not her’s, but someone else’s. The moral of the story seems disheartening; memories and feelings, the very core of perceived reality, do not guarantee reality.

Idealists need not lose heart. Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether Samantha’s love for Theodore was real or not, because he believed it was real. If Samantha were administered Alan Turing’s famous test for AI sentience, she would undeniably pass. Besides, in Theo’s world, as in ours, relationships are increasingly nurtured and developed through virtual means. Is a physical body really even required anymore? Artificial or not, perhaps intelligence is enough.