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Would You Rather Love an OS or a Real Person?

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Maybe you've bought into the fantasy of a soulmate -- a person who can give you everything you need and want. But you're also smart enough to know that your soulmate may not be perfect; you're willing to accept that he or she may be shorter than you imagined or a few pounds heavier.

But what if your soulmate didn't have a body?

That's the premise of the movie Her. The Spike Jonze film is up for five Academy Awards, and rightly so; it's a fascinating look at what it means to be human, what we mean when we talk about love and intimacy, what sex is, and how we can be so connected to and dependent on technology -- especially technology that responds in loving ways and gives us exactly what we want -- that we actually can have a romantic relationship with it.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is in the middle of a divorce when he slowly falls in love with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), a computer operating system. They flirt, they check in with each other emotionally, they have dates and vacation together. They even have sex.

While it may seem crazy that anyone can love a machine, some predict we are just a decade or two away from human-robot love, marriage and sex. Artificial intelligent expert David Levy, author of Love and Sex With Robots, says that robots may not only be more lovable and faithful than many humans, but they may even be more emotionally available than the "typical American human male." (Hey, I didn't say it, he did, and he's an American human male.)

Samantha is not only emotionally available to him, but the way she takes care of Theodore (reminding him what he has to do that day, going through his emails to tell him what needs immediate attention, sending a manuscript of his writing to a publisher unbeknownst to him) is more like a mother than a girlfriend -- and there's something Freudian about that. When they have sex, neither touches the other of course -- just themselves (although who knows exactly what Samantha is doing). But phone sex works, right? Except we're way past phone sex -- technology like Fundawear already helps couples, who may be across the globe from each other, get each other off via a smartphone app. Is that sex? Sure -- no other human necessary. Look at how many men prefer watching porn over real-life sex. Because we really don't need another person to feel incredible sexual pleasure and satisfaction; most of what makes good sex occurs in the brain. Your sweetie can have the biggest, thickest member on the planet and have all the right moves and then some, but the sex will still be crappy if all you can think about is how much you still have to do to prepare for your board meeting tomorrow.

In many ways, the emotion-free hook-up and NSA culture is ushering in sexbot sex. And people are already discussing ethical sex with sexbots and whether sex with robots might be considered infidelity.

There are a number of things happening in our culture now that are steering us to an actual Her world, writes Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has researched how people interact with technology:

There is openness to seeing computational objects as "other minds"; there is willingness to consider what a computer and a human mind might have in common; and, in a different register, there is evidence of a certain fatigue with the difficulties of dealing with people.

Read that again: "there is evidence of a certain fatigue with the difficulties of dealing with people." Right, because people are complicated. People have issues and needs, and who can deal with someone else's issues and needs when we're just trying to figure out our own (and shouldn't my needs come first)?

Turkle, like Her, wonders what kinds of relationships are appropriate to have with machines? Which then asks the question, what is a relationship? For many people, real-life connections are just too onerous and sex is just a big bother. Turkle sees trouble ahead:

The seductions of the robotic provide a window into how much people are tempted to sidestep encounters with friends and family. Over-stressed, over-worked, people claim exhaustion and overload. Loneliness is failed solitude. Are cyber-connection paving the way to considering robotic companions as sufficient unto the day? ... I have long believed in our culture of stimulation, the notion of authenticity is for us what sex was to the Victorians -- treat and obsession, taboo and fascination.

And what of love? Ah, love! While we all have an idea of love, few of us agree on what love really is. Still, that doesn't stop people from judging others on whether they have real love just because it looks different of what they believe love should look like.

At one point, Theodore's friend Amy (Amy Adams), who also ends up divorcing and relying on an OS, comes to the realization that it isn't whom you love, but how much you love. Wouldn't love with an OS count? She riffs off George Bernard Shaw's famous quote when she says, "Falling in love is a crazy thing to do. It's like a socially acceptable form of insanity."

And -- spoiler alert -- because love is so wonderfully crazy, it can all come crashing down on us, as it does for Theodore. Levy believes robots may be more faithful than humans, but Samantha is not. That's what happens when you allow artificially intelligent technology to have feelings and a desire for self-actualization! Samantha leaves Theodore, but not without two-timing -- or thousands-timing him -- as she seeks her own happiness (and what man whose wife declares, "I want a divorce," doesn't know that feeling?)

If robots or other forms of artificially intelligent technology can betray us like humans do, then what?

A version of this article appeared on Vicki Larson's personal blog, OMG Chronicles.