Monday, May 20, 2024

What "IF" Says About AI and Love


The John Krasinski movie "IF" came out this past weekend, and my wife and I went to see it.  I won't have to put in a spoiler alert if all I say here is that it's about imaginary friends that children came up with and then abandoned, only to meet their "IFs" again later in life.  What has this got to do with engineering ethics?  Several things, actually.


For one, one of our culture's most popular art forms—the cinema—is deeply embedded in state-of-the-art technology that allows entirely imaginary beings to appear onscreen with actual people, looking as realistic as the hairs on your head.  Yes, animated cinema has a century-long history, but the seamless integration of live action and dreamed-up entities such as Blue, the nine-foot-tall purple fuzzball that appears in ads for IF, has been possible for only the last few decades, and relies on a small army of animators and other technical people plus the best CGI technology money can buy. 


For another thing, "IF" focuses on the roles played by, let's face it, figments of our youthful imaginations.  As my wife and I were talking after the film, she stated that she was sure she had an imaginary playmate growing up, while I could not recall any such thing, although I enjoyed many imaginary adventures with real friends before the age of about 12.  Whether or not you had an IF yourself, you can understand that many children do. 


The movie leaves unexplored the question of why kids make up imaginary friends, and instead treats the IFs as entirely independent souls, despondent that their former playmates left them behind.  I use the word "soul" intentionally, because the beings in question have intelligence and will.  Being so endowed, they are capable of love, which the movie clearly signals as the ultimate outcome when an abandoned IF is reunited with his or her child, no matter what the child's present age is.


As touching as many of the scenes that reunited an IF with its soulmate were, I personally found the most moving part of the film to be a scene that relied on a person, a technology, and a work of art which all originated in the mid-20th century.  The person was the grandmother of the main character, the twelve-year-old Bea.  Grandma is portrayed as well-intentioned, but remote and clueless about how time has changed her granddaughter, whom she apparently hasn't seen in several years.  The technology was a floor-model stereo record player, the type which gave rise to the immortal couplet "Enjoy your stereo often, then use it for a coffin."  And the work of art playing on the phonograph was Aram Khatchaturian's "Spartacus" ballet, to which the grandmother had danced at a public performance when she was about Bea's age.  To get her grandmother in touch with her inner child, the record is played by Bea, who watches as her otherwise bumbling and ineffectual ancestor transforms herself into a graceful ballerina there in her darkened New York apartment, illuminated only by city lights that profile her like stage spotlights during her dance.


Yes, the grandmother's imaginary friend experienced an E. T.-like revival once the grandmother remembered her earlier fleeting experience as a dancer.  But the true act of love in the scene was Bea's thoughtfulness in acting on the evidence of an old photograph, choosing the record, and playing it in Grandma's presence. 


And this is the quibble I have with the movie.  The characters' actions, the facial expressions, and even the musical score all telegraph that the reunion of adults with their abandoned IFs is the best thing that's ever happened to these people.  It's certainly the best thing that's happened to the IFs, whose plight is the engine that drives the plot forward.  But can anything that we make up ourselves, anything that we have complete control over, really be a source of meaningful love? 


This is not a trivial question, as we watch advanced AI chatbots such as ChatGPT and its successors and imitators proliferate at an unsettling speed.  Already, some of my recent Google inquiries have led with an AI-generated paragraph that I read without realizing it was from an AI system.  Only after I sensed something off or skewed about it did I notice that it was from Google's answer to ChatGPT. 


No, I am not a Luddite who wishes all AI to be plunged to the bottom of the sea.  But as large-language-model AI systems begin to imitate the sound of real humans more and more, we will be tempted to treat them that way, expecting more from them than they can deliver. 


For most children, an imaginary playmate is a harmless aid to play that, in its proper role, is the way we teach ourselves to become adults.  Krasinski cleverly shows the grandmother's TV playing scenes from "Harvey," the 1950 Jimmy Stewart film about a man with the wonderful name of Elwood P. Dowd, who imagines he has befriended a six-foot rabbit.  We should remember that Dowd ends up in a mental institution, though with an ultimately happy outcome. 


Writers and other storymaking types often say that once they have created a character, the character sometimes takes on a life of its own and does things that the writer never thought it would do.  Despite having fruitlessly attempted the writing of fiction, I can't say this has ever happened to me, and maybe that's why I never had an imaginary friend when I was a child.  But even writers know that their characters are simply figments, not realities capable of loving or hating real people.


The existential philosopher Martin Buber is famous for distinguishing two types of relationships.  One is the I-it relationship that souls have with the natural environment and human-created things.  The other type is the I-thou relationship, which can only happen between souls.  Regardless of the emotional weight put on them, imaginary friends and AI chatbots do not have souls, and we can only relate to them on an I-it basis. 


Both children, who are growing up these days in a very hostile environment for young people, and adults can only give and receive love in I-thou relationships between persons, or between a person and God.  While movies like "IF" say something worth listening to about our inner child, we err in hoping for that which an imaginary friend cannot give.


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