By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, April 30, 2015
Ex Machina is a 2015 British science fiction film about artificial intelligence (AI) written and directed by Alex Garland. The story is about a billionaire who connives to have a brilliant programmer come to a secret location to Turing Test a robot prototype. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan Bateman, the billionaire, Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb Smith, the programmer, and Alicia Vikander plays Ava, the AI robot. The film has little action but is quite thrilling. And I’m overjoyed to have a science fiction movie without silly macho weapons, fantasy feats of martial arts, and cartoonish battles to save the world.
Ex Machina asks, like computer scientists have been asking for the last sixty years, and philosophers for the last 2,500 years, what makes us human? Once we understood how evolution shaped life, we knew that whatever qualities that make us different from animals should explain our humanity. Artificial intelligence seeks to reproduce those qualities in a machine. We have yet to define and understand what makes us human, and robot engineers are far from making machines that demonstrate humanness in robots.
Although I’m going to be asking a lot of questions about Ex Machina, my questions aren’t meant to be criticisms. Ex Machina entices its audience to think very hard about the nature of artificial intelligence. I hope it makes people think of even more about the movie, like I’m doing here.
The main idea I want to explore is why the robot had a female form. The obvious answer is movie goers find sexy females appealing. But is looking human the same as being human? AI scientists has always wondered if they could build a machine that average people couldn’t distinguished from a human, but they always planned to make the tests so Turing testers couldn’t see the humans and machines. However, in movies and books, we get to see the machine beings. Adding looks to the equations make them more complicated.
Because so many robot engineers and storytellers make their robots look like human females, we have to ask:
Would Ex Machina have the same impact if the robot had a human male shape or non-human shape?
Is the female body the ultimate human form in our mind? In a movie that explores if a machine can have a self-aware conscious mind isn’t it cheating to make it look just like a human? Since we judge books by their covers, wouldn’t most people think a mechanical being that looks and acts exactly like beautiful woman be human? By the way, I can’t wait to see how feminists analyze this film. Imagine see this movie a different way. Instead of asking if robots have souls, if the film was asking if women had souls. In the theater, we could also see two extremely intelligent men testing to see if a beautiful woman is their equal.
By making the robots female, the filmmakers both confuse the machine intelligence issue, and add a layer of gender issues. It also shoves us into the Philip K. Dick headspace of wondering about our own nature. Is everyone you know equal to you? Do they think just like you? Do they feel just like you? Could some people we know be machines? What makes us different from a machine or animal? In the book Blade Runner was based on, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dick was comparing soulless humans to machines with his androids. Machines are his metaphor for people without empathy.
If the two scientists had been played by actresses, and the robot was a sexy actor, how would we have interpreted the movie differently? A bookshelf of dissertations could be written on that question. What are the Freudian implications of us wanting the robots to look like beautiful young women? How would society react if scientists really could build artificial mind and bodies, manufacturing millions of beautiful women sexbots that have to integrate into our society? Of course, many humans will immediate try to fuck them. But if AI machines looked like people, why should they act like people? Guys will screw blowup dolls now – is a vaguely womanly shaped piece of plastic all it takes to fool those men into replacing real woman?
How would audiences have reacted if the robots of Ex Machina looked like giant mechanical insects?
Ex Machina explores many of the questions AI scientists are still puzzling over. Personally, I think it confuses the issue for us to build intelligent machines to look like us. Yes, our minds are the gold standard by which we measure artificial intelligence, but do they need bodies that match ours?
If the robot in Ex Machina had looked like a giant metal insect would the audience ever believed it was equal to a human? We think Ava is a person right from the first time we see her. Even though it’s obvious she has a machine body, her face is so human we never think of her as a machine. This is the main flaw of the film. I understand it’s cheaper to have humans play android robots than build real robots, and people powered robots look too fake, but in the end, anything that looks human will always feel human to the audience. Can we ever have a fair Turing Test with a creature that looks like us?
We don’t want to believe that computers can be self-aware conscious beings. Actually, I think this film would have been many magnitudes more powerful if its robot had looked a like giant mechanical insect, had a non gender specific name, and convinced us to feel it was intelligent, willful, self-aware, feeling, and growing. Which is what happened in Short Circuit (1986) with its robot Johnny Five.
The trouble is we equate true artificial intelligence with being equal to humans. Artificial Intelligence is turning out to be a bad label for the concept. Computers that play chess exhibit artificial intelligence. Computers that recognize faces exhibit artificial intelligence. Computers that drive cars exhibit artificial intelligence. We’ll eventually be able to build machines that can do everything we can, but will they be equal to us?
What we were shown is artificial people, and what the film was really asking:
Is it possible to create artificial souls?
Creating an artificial human body is a different goal than creating an artificial soul. We have too many humans on this planet now, so why find another way of manufacturing them? What we really want to do is create artificial beings that have souls and are better than us. That’s the real goal, even though most people are terrified at the idea.
Alan Turning invented the Imitation Game that we now call the Turing Test, but the original Turing Test might not be sufficient to identify artificial souls. We’re not even sure all people have souls of equal scope. Are the men of ISIS equal in compassion to the people who win a Nobel for Peace? We can probably create robots that kill other humans by distinguishing sectarian affiliations, but it’s doubtful we could create a robot that works to solve the Earth’s problems with compassion. If we did, wouldn’t you think it had a soul? What if we created an expert system that solved climate change, would it only be very intelligent, or would it have to have a soul?
In the end, I believe we can invent machines that can do anything we can. Eventually they will do things better, and do things we can’t. But will they have what we have, that sense of being alive? What would a machine have to do to reveal it had an artificial soul?
Can a machine have a soul?
In the course of the movie, we’re asked to believe if a robot likes a human that might mean they are human like. Eventually, we’re also led to ask if a robot hates a human, does that make them human too? Is love and hate our definition of having souls? Is it compassion? Empathy? We’ll eventually create a computer that can derive all the laws of physics. But if a machine can recreate the work of Einstein, does it make it equal to Einstein?
Ex Machina is sophisticated enough to make its audience ask some very discerning questions about AI minds. Why did Alex Garland make Ava female? Across the globe robot engineers and sex toy manufacturers are working to build life-like robots that look like sexy women. The idea of a sexbot has been around for decades. Are super-Nerds building fembots to replace the real women they can’t find through Match.com? If men could buy or rent artificial women to make their sexual fantasies come true, will they ever bother getting to know real women? Why does Nathan really build Ava?
Caleb falls for Ava. We all fall for Ava. But is that all we’re interested in – looks? If Caleb thinks Ava is a machine, especially one with no conscious mind, he will not care for her. But how much do Ava’s looks fool Caleb? How much are we fooled by other people’s looks anyway? If you fall in love with a beautiful woman just because of looks, does that justify thinking you’re in love with her?
We’re all programmed at a deeply genetic level to be social, to seek out at least one other person to bond with and develop a deeper communication. What Ex Machina explores is what features beyond the body do we need to make a connection. A new version of the Turing Test could be one in which we offer people the friendship of humans or the friendship of machines. If a majority of people start preferring to hang out with AI beings that might indicate we’ve succeeded – but again it might not. Many people find pets as suitable substitutes for human companionship. I’m worried if we gave most young men the option to marry sexbots, they might. I also picture them keeping their artificial women in a closet and only getting them out to play with for very short periods of time. Would male friends and female robots fulfill all their social needs?
Ex Machina is supposed to make us ask about what is human, but I’m worried how many males left the theater wishing they could trade in their girlfriend or wife for Ava? So is Ex Machina also asking if society will accept sexbots? Is that way Ava had a human female body?