Why Did The Robot in Ex Machina Look Like a Beautiful Woman?

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.

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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?

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9 thoughts on “Why Did The Robot in Ex Machina Look Like a Beautiful Woman?”

  1. Gardner may have felt that a male Ava, female Nathan, and female Caleb would be beyond his ability to write & direct. I’m not sure how the plot works if Ava doesn’t appear human. How would she convince Caleb to help her to escape? Someone would have to ignore the end of the movie to want a robot exactly like Ava.

    1. I am reminded of a quote from The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, when a hot woman tells a jealous wife she’s not interested in her husband who is chasing after her. She says, “A man hears what he wants and makes up the rest.” I think many men would make up all kinds of false beliefs about Ava just because they are attracted to her. People often fall in love with heartless other people. But that’s part of my point. Because Ava is played by a beautiful actress we fall in love with her. If the robot had been an ugly machine with a heart of gold, could we still fall in love with it and want to protect it?

  2. Well, I find your assertion that we are trying to create artificial souls kind of…well…quaint and sad. First off, I really don’t get this “soul”thing that folks seem to think is somehow important, even though we have no proof such a thing exists outside of humans desire to feel special or cosmically significant. Second, even of there were such a thing, by the myths, human “souls” are a created, artificial thing too. So, third, no some of us are not trying to create a fake soul, we want a child species which does us proud by exceeding us.

    Yes, when they create cool robot woman I sure would think about dating them, but then I find power just as sexy as anyone else. Fun for me is that being a genetic malfunction I can get away with dating sexy robo-woman since I am incapable of breeding replacement people. 🙂

    Honestly, I am looking forward to my machine children being better at human than humans since we on the whole suck ass at it.

    1. Craig, I wrote an earlier blog about how I like to use the word soul, even though I’m a atheist, because it’s a good single word to use as a pointer to that phenomenon inside our head that perceives reality.

      Despite all our towering intellectual achievements, the human race does suck ass at taking care of the world. I hope any cybernetic descendants we create to a better job.

  3. Well, you wrote that you were curious about a feminist perspective of this movie, so here you go!

    I know this post is a month old, but I just saw “Ex Machina” over the weekend. The main question I had after watching it was: If Nathan is programming the robot’s brains and personalities, why couldn’t he just program them to be content with being glorified sex toys?

    The answer, I think, reveals a very sinister side to not only Nathan as a character, but also how this movie deals with gender and power as well. When Caleb is hacking into Nathan’s computer system he watches as one of the robots desperately pleads with Nathan to be let out. She then beats on the door until her hands fall to pieces. This is disturbing. These robots have wills and desires and they are being held against their will. They are so desperate to escape that they risk self-harm in order to escape. So, Nathan makes Kyoko, a non-talking “fembot” who is seemingly content to just be his subservient housewife whom he can have sex with and is an excellent dance partner. After achieving “the perfect woman” in Kyoko, Nathan still isn’t satisfied. His genius (albeit sadistic) mind still craves more of a challenge: Ava. Ava is his best attempt at achieving true A.I. BUT, he needs to test her with someone other than himself to see just how good she really is. Since he has access to every person’s search history, he can tailor her to fit someone’s exact tastes: Caleb’s. Nathan is a master-manipulator with a self-destructive streak. He intended, from the very beginning, to to manipulate Caleb, which he doesn’t really bother hiding. Caleb asks Nathan why he gave Ava sexuality. Why didn’t he just make her a gray cube? Nathan responds by explaining that we don’t want to interact with cubes. If you could create an interactive being with A.I., wouldn’t you want it to be with something you could fuck? In this view, I’m not so sure having the roles of Nathan and Caleb being female and the robots being male would have had the same impact. It certainly would have been a very different movie.

    To me, this movie is as much a metaphor for our innate desire to create and our struggle with where creativity ends and immorally “playing God” begins as it is about gender. It also taps into our fear of “Big Brother”, already explored by George Orwell and other sci-fi founders. Nathan’s God-like power by having access to everyone’s search history gives him an unsettling power. He then uses this power to marry his other creepy hobby of making almost-human sex dolls with tailoring one that will have the capacity to manipulate a human. And she does. Caleb falls in love with Ava, just as Nathan hoped. The real question is whether or not Nathan anticipated Ava could actually escape, and also if she would eventually kill him. Remember, Nathan is an alcoholic, tortured genius. He has some serious self-destructive tendencies. Some interpretations I’ve read have chalked it up to a sort of Frankenstein-esque guilt of creating an unhappy being. I disagree. I think, deep down, Nathan wanted everything that happened to happen. His death meant that no one would ever truly be able to replicate what he achieved. Not soon anyway. He would be revered as an unmatched genius and Ava would be released onto the unknowing public for the ultimate Turing test.
    power as well.

    1. Wonderful summary Kelly. Working from your inspiration, I can see another feminist statement in the movie. We have Nathan who possesses Ava (traditional male), and Caleb who wants to free her (male feminist), but in the end, Ava walks away from both males. On the AI level Ava is saying she doesn’t need humans. On the feminist level, she’s saying she doesn’t need males.

  4. Just watched the movie last night. It was quite good. The ending was what I felt left a lot open. Did Ex Machina really like Caleb? or was she just using him to escape. I wonder if her motives were only pragmatic given the circumstances. It makes since to leave Caleb behind in order to not be discovered, and also take his apartment for a time, but then there is the issue of charging her batteries where Caleb would have been useful as an enabler. It also occurred to me that if Nathan could terminate something as Human as Ex Machina, it would not be much of a leap to terminate Caleb also at the end of the test? For me seeing the helicopter arrive was a little redeeming for Nathan, because it could have just as easily not arrived at the end of the test. Hollywood makes a lot of assumptions attaching human traits to artificial intelligence. I think in application that might not necessarily be the case. Unless programmed specifically for socialization and preservation of the human species I think their though process would tend to be more pragmatic and binary.

    1. I don’t think it will be possible to specifically program the Three Laws of Robotics into an intelligent machine. I think machine intelligence will evolve out of complex pattern processing. Whether ethics and empathy evolves too is a whole other issue.

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