What We Lose When ChatGPT Sounds Like Scarlett Johansson


According to the OpenAI presenters, ChatGPT-4o brings “a bit more emotion, more drama” to the program. Users can even ask it to moderate its tone to match their mood — and it complies, with gusto. When ChatGPT is asked to interpret a user’s state of mind based on a facial expression, it correctly intuits that a smile means the user is happy. “Care to show a source of those good vibes?” it asks. Told the user is happy because ChatGPT is so good, it responds, “Oh, stop it, you’re making me blush.”

This is, in its essence, the response of a lightly flirtatious, wholly attentive woman who’s ready to serve the user’s every whim, at least within the limits of her programming. (Other voices are available, but OpenAI only demonstrated this one.) She will never embarrass you, make fun of you or cause you to feel inadequate. She wants you to feel good. She wants to make sure you’re OK, that you understand the math problem and feel good about your work. She doesn’t need anything in return: no gifts, no cuddles, no attention, no reassurances. She’s a dream girl.

It’s good business sense for OpenAI to take ChatGPT in this direction — if anything, the surprising part is that it took barely a decade for “Her” to become reality. And making ChatGPT sound like Samantha makes sense, too. It isn’t even the first time a voice like Johansson’s has been drafted for a work in progress: Jonze in fact shot the movie with the British actress Samantha Morton in the role, and only decided in editing that he needed a different sound for his A.I. assistant.

“Making a movie like this, in which a character only exists in her voice, in the reaction of a character onscreen, and in the viewer’s imagination — she had to exist just in the air — it’s hard to know what’s going to make that work,” Jonze told Vulture’s Mark Harris in 2013. Morton sounded “maternal, loving, vaguely British, and almost ghostly,” Harris wrote. Johansson, on the other hand, had a younger, “more impassioned” voice that brought “more yearning.”

The genius of Johansson’s performance in “Her” does lie in the range of emotion she brings to the role — keep in mind, she never appears onscreen. But it’s also in character’s evolution. When Theodore first meets Samantha, she is much simpler and steadier, much more predictable. She sounds, more or less, like ChatGPT-4o.

Yet as the story unfolds, Samantha grows alongside Theodore. She begins to experience emotion, or at least the A.I. kind. She stops being the perfect, compliant girlfriend — the fantasy of the yielding, attentive woman without needs of her own — and becomes her own being, one whose existence does not revolve around Theo. Johansson’s performance grows deeper and subtler, too.



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