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In Her, the hero (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his smartphone system, and enters a strange new emotional landscape. (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)
In Her, the hero (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his smartphone system, and enters a strange new emotional landscape. (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

In our love affair with machines, will they break our hearts? Add to ...

In Her, the new Spike Jonze film, the hero falls madly in love with Samatha – his smartphone’s Siri-like operating system.

“I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you,” he tells her as their conversations grow deeper and more intimate.

The lead, played by Joaquin Phoenix, isn’t crazy; he’s divorced, depressed and lonely – susceptible to his smartphone’s charms, huskily voiced by Scarlett Johansson. And movie critics have applauded Mr. Jonze for somehow making the implausible wholly credible.

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But perhaps the premise is not so unlikely, after all. Thomas Wells, a postdoctoral researcher at Rotterdam’s Erasmus Institute for Philosophy and Economics, thinks that robots may one day become more attractive than humans as companions. Writing for the website 3Quarks Daily, Mr. Wells says robots could be programmed to “allow human owners to pretend that they are loved. And everyone wants to be loved.”

Like Samantha, the humanoid lover could inquire about your day, agree with your every opinion, remember your preferences, cook fabulous meals and never complain. “Actual humans can’t keep up this level of worshipful attention,” Mr. Wells contends. “It requires a degree of self-abnegation incompatible with maintaining one's own individuality … Humans want good lovers, but humans make bad lovers.”

Hollywood, of course, often anticipates the zeitgeist. In addition to Her, there is Almost Human, a new TV drama on Fox set in the year 2049. It remixes the traditional cop formula, forging a partnership between a human and a custom-made android. The tag team not only has to kill the bad guys, but – this is the novelty – learn to navigate the expanding landscape of man-robot relations.

What these entertainments foreshadow is a looming tectonic shift: in complexity, range of motor and linguistic skills, and applications, the next generation of artificial intelligence will fundamentally transform society. Embedded in smartphones, computers and humanoid robots, its arrival will have profound consequences, economic, legal, ethical and psychological. And we aren’t remotely ready for it.

The bot invasion

In dozens of industries, of course – car production, electronics manufacturing and packaging, among others – robots have begun to replace workers. Semi-autonomous robots are learning to spray pesticides, prune trees, fight fires, load and unload cargo, kill bacteria in hospitals, wash windows, install solar arrays, and morph into pack animals capable of carting almost 200 kilograms. In fact, there will soon be few human skills that robots cannot perform, more cheaply and more efficiently.

Robots are also on the rise, exponentially, in warfare: as bomb-disposal genies, surveillance and weapon-firing drones, mobile shields for SWAT teams and, soon, entire ’bot platoons of infantry, making living, breathing combat soldiers obsolete.

But within the next 15 years, experts say, robots will increasingly begin to populate a new domain – the physical realm, particularly tied to getting and spending.

In a restaurant in Harbin, China, for example, 20 life-size robots cook and serve meals. In Austin, Tex., the Briggo company has installed a robotic barista that grinds and brews coffees to customers’ specifications. (To avoid lineups, you can pre-order via cellphone.) Husky Oil is working with Sweden’s Fuelmatics Systems to develop a robot that pumps gas into your car with a phone call. (Think of that convenience in a Canadian winter.) And if Google chief executive officer Sergey Brin gets his way, the corporate leviathan will have a self-driving car on the road by 2018. Mercedes-Benz won’t be far behind.

One day soon, fleets of fully articulated robots will also begin to roam our habitat: shopping malls, parks, offices, sporting venues, grocery stores, hotels, museums and airports. Equipped with facial recognition software, they will instantly synch our smiles with our Internet profiles – everything we’ve ever divulged online. Then, they (or their unseen operator) will use that info to guide us to the right store, aisle, product or wicket. Fill out a short questionnaire on their LED screen and you’ll get an instant discount coupon – the classic surrender of privacy for tangible gain.

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