The other night, I was tired. Instead of reading, I dug out my collection of films, looking for something fun and not too taxing on the cerebral cortex. Unfortunately, all I had available was science fiction films and other “thinkers.” But then I eyed one I hadn’t seen yet: Ex Machina.
Somehow, I missed this film when it came out in theaters. It wasn’t until last year at my local sci-fi film fest, when I sat next to this loud pubescent kid who couldn’t stop praising the film, that I began to wonder. “Is it really that good?” I asked him. He and his friends all said yes.
I was intrigued from the start and all the way through. It was well-shot, well-acted, and had a tight script with good dialogue. As I commented on a science fiction forum I belong to, Ex Machina was “four actors and a series of conversations in a couple of rooms.” It was simple, yet layered.
To summarize: Young programmer wins a chance to spend a week at the hidden mountain home of brilliant programmer who founded a Google-like company. After some awkward moments and the signing of an NDA, young programmer gets access to brilliant programmer’s little secret: he has AIs floating around his fancy little crib and he wants young programmer to help with the Turing Test, designed to see if the AI’s behavior is indistinguishable from a human’s. The test applies to Ava, whom young programmer falls for, not Kyoko, brilliant programmer’s mute servant and plaything.
/Spoilers from here on./
You come to realize Nathan (brilliant programmer) is using Caleb (young programmer) for his own purposes. Ava has the ability to cut power to Nathan’s fancy getaway whenever she wants to share a secret with Caleb, namely that Nathan is untrustworthy. Caleb feels protective of Ava and finds out Nathan plans to “upgrade” Ava, thus deleting her consciousness. When Caleb attempts to free Ava, Nathan finds out his plan, but then Ava recruits Kyoko’s help. At the end, Nathan winds up dead, Caleb trapped in the house, and Ava catching Caleb’s ride to the real world.
This is a psychological film with very little “action.” Yet, a lot happens and we’re left thinking. To me, that’s a good science fiction film.
One of the debates I saw on the forum was why Ava would leave Caleb locked in the house when he helped set her free and cared for her, when her survival in the real world is questionable given her naïveté and maintenance needs. You could argue she’s an AI who’s preoccupied with her own survival, and lacks the empathy that her creator seemed to lack, and thus left Caleb to rot because she didn’t need him. You could also argue that the two female AIs killed Nathan but not Caleb (when they easily could have), suggesting that Caleb might be rescued while still giving Ava opportunity to escape. Either way, she left him there instead of taking him with her, suggesting that any feelings she had for him were purely created for manipulative purposes.
AI Films and the Information Age
People creating artificial intelligences or other human-like creatures, and then facing the potential consequences, have been around for ages, from Frankenstein to Weird Science to Blade Runner to The Matrix. More films are also examining the emotional aspects of such creation in terms of human-AI relationships, as seen in Her and Ex Machina. Such speculations make sense given our being steeped in the Information Age. If we can find a date over a computer, have virtual lives that are completely separate from our real ones, and ask our phones to tell us jokes, are relations with computer beings that far behind?
Many times, AI stories are tales of warning, the assumption being that AIs have greater intelligence than humans but also less empathy, thus leading to their eventually taking over and either oppressing humans are just eradicating them altogether. Although some experts say this isn’t a realistic prediction, it’s always good to consider the potential ramifications of technology instead of blindly creating it for the sake of the ooh-aah factor.
Men Who Tinker and the Women They Tinker With
Much like stories about humans creating AI monsters, we have stories of men creating AI women. In Weird Science, two teen boys create a beautiful woman in the hopes of meeting their teen boy needs. In Ex Machina, we find out Nathan has created a series of women AIs in an attempt to improve each one, and the failed models are stored away in a secret closet. The women, while racially diverse, all look basically the same: tall, rail-thin, gorgeous… like models. He’s a narcissist who only sees the “models” as vehicles to serve him food and sex, to serve as proof of his intellectual prowess, to endure his ridicule for spilling a drink and not living up to his expectations, just so he can upgrade to another.
Sounds like a real narcissist to me.
One could even say that Ex Machina is a feminist film, where the oppressed females find their power, vanquish the self-serving patriarch, and find freedom either in an honorable death or in escape. He made them in his own image, he trapped them and treated them like objects, and they eventually found a way out and triumphed.
Ava, who looked different than Nathan’s model playtoys, was, to his own admission, more like a daughter to him. She was younger, more naive, designed to turn Caleb on instead. Her rebellion is the same, however, a refusal to live under the thumb of her patriarch or even to be rescued by a man who cares for her. A couple of times, her brown eyes and mannerisms, and her intelligence and vulnerability, reminded me a lot of Rachel from Blade Runner. But unlike Rachel, Ava doesn’t accede to the sexual wishes of the male who digs her, instead venturing out on her own.
Interesting stuff. Worth seeing.
I thought Ex Machina was one of the best SF films I’ve seen since the turn of the century. Very thought provoking. For me it works at two levels: Telling an engaging story while, at the same time, drawing the audience into the Turing test around which the plot revolves. At both levels, the screen writer makes some very important points about both humans and a sentient AIs.
As Caleb points out during the film’s set up, in a classic Turing test, participants don’t know whether they’re interacting with a machine or another human. Nathan tells Caleb that Ava could pass that test easily. The test in this case is whether Caleb, even knowing Ava is a machine, will suspend that knowledge and tend to perceive and interact with Ava as though Ava were human.
In the course of the test, Ava’s machine nature is kept evident to both Caleb and the audience – Ava’s midsection is transparent and the machinery beneath is in plain sight. Ava is very nuanced performance by Vikander. She keeps the AI elements of Ava’s character just beneath the surface, not allowing them to become obvious or stilted, while Ava engages both Caleb and the audience emotionally.
Caleb is almost immediately drawn in by Ada’s evident humanity. Nathan never loses sight of the machine and the ‘code’ that drives it. If the viewer can hold onto both points of view, there’s a wonderful duality to the story that unfolds.
Late in the movie, Sonoya Minuzo’s Kyoko, in a close up shot, removes part of her face, revealing the machine beneath. This is, I think, to remind the audience of Ava and Kyoko’s true nature. Neither Ava nor Kyoko are women. To the extent this is an intelligence, it is an alien intelligence. With that, the plot’s can be interpreted in two ways – the battle of a woman against her abuser, or a scientist battling to prevent a technical singularity from being set loose on an unwary world.
On the question of whether or not Ava felt emotions or emulated them, I tend to fall on the ‘emulation’ side. Ava’s lack of empathy (and our disappointment in that lack) is pretty true to what I’d expect of human/AI interactions. For robots and AI’s to be useful and effective, they need to be able to encode and decode human emotional cues. It makes communication more efficient and the humans more comfortable. Whether or not the AI actually feels the emotions or is emulating them is beside the point. What’s important is that the human react naturally and easily, as though the AI’s emotions were genuine.
I’m not sure that, in the end, we want AIs with human feelings. Humans are a dangerous and unpredictable species. Given humanity’s track-record when encountering competing alpha-species, Ava’s lack of human emotions may be the only thing that saves humanity after the credits roll.
Thanks for commenting, MF. Interesting points. It’s the old “felt vs. emulated” question that’s always an interesting one with A.I. themes.