Until about a month ago, I had no idea who or what Siri is, but now I have been introduced. This happened through a friend who told me a funny story of how a friend of hers “asked” Siri to tell a joke. At first Siri demurred but when asked again told this joke that seems genuinely funny to me: “The past, present and future went into a bar—it was tense.” The day after I heard this joke told by an artificial intelligence “person,” I actually heard Siri speak through the iPhone of my next door neighbor. As Siri was speaking, I remembered hearing on Public Radio about a movie called “Her” in which a man actually falls in love with the AI voice on one of his electronic devices. All this raises questions in my mind about what constitutes a relationship and whether there has to be a physical person across a table or room or beside on in a bed to qualify. Friends tell me I need to watch the movie because it takes on precisely these ethical puzzlements that grow ever more pertinent as computer technology gallops along way ahead of anything as amorphous as ethics.
Before I watch “Her,” however, I find myself going back to a 16th c. poet, Michael Drayton (1563-1631), who, like most of his male contemporaries, wrote a sonnet sequence. Drayton’s sequence is entitled “Idea’s Mirror” and is comprised of 64 poems about Drayton’s “idea” of an ideal lady love. Because the object of his affection is not someone he might meet on the street or in a coffeehouse or inn, Drayton is able to have total control on how their relationship develops. Many other 16th c. sonneteers lamented the corporeality of their heart’s desire precisely because some of the ladies in question refused to conform to the poet’s wishes and dreams for how courtship should proceed. So Drayton was smart to create from wholecloth the idea (and ideal) sweetheart. But he was also complex enough to pen some sonnets in which his “idea” didn’t behave exactly as he wished, thus allowing him to lament and struggle in order to feel even more accomplished once he brought his ethereal lady around to his way of thinking.
So Siri may be a new AI invention coming from the world of chips and bytes, and “Her” may be a current film version of virtual reality, but neither has anything on Michael Drayton who understood what we all know: It is so much more convenient to construct a relationship in our heads than to try and maintain one that involves some flesh and blood that is not our own.