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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The Implications of Sexbots

The other night on the Discovery Channel I saw a documentary about robots where the physicist Michio Kaku suggested that sex might be a factor in the development of robots.  Kaku pointed out that the porn industry often used cutting edge technology for expanding their revenues.  I certainly wouldn’t want to hump any of the robots they were showing in the documentary, so I thought his statement was silly.  But then I remember Blade Runner, and knew I’d have a different opinion if I could buy androids that looked like Sean Young, Daryl Hannah and Joanna Cassidy did back in 1982.

Let’s assume that in the future they can make robots that are indistinguishable from humans and you can buy one for the price of a Camry, how many men will buy one for sex?  Or even go to some red light district like in the movie AI, and pay to have sex with machines?  Can lady robots ever be that appealing.  Of course the porn industry does sell sex dolls now, but they are the butt of jokes.  If there really are people having sex with plastic dolls then I suppose there might be a market for more realistic animated dolls, but I find that hard to believe.

However, the implications of sexbots are great.  Real women already assume all men want are big boob bimbos with long legs and tiny waists.  Real women go to unnatural lengths to artificially shape their bodies into what they think men want.  So, is it that farfetched that some future industry wouldn’t try to manufacture women to order?  And if a man could purchase his perfect female companion, what features would he want included?  If you can specify breast size you can also specify how many words will be in your sexbox’s vocabulary, and if it should cook, clean and chauffeur.

This brings up another question.  If future scientists can build robots that look like women, what if they can also build robots that act like women.  Imagine a Turing Test for femininity.  Now we’re getting into the territory of building a better wife.  If you were sitting down at a robot showroom talking with the salesman, what features would you want in your new Busty Babe 2020?

To be frank, at 57 my sex drive isn’t as driving as it was in my second and third decade.  If I bought a lady robot now I’d probably think of the near future and add the nursing skills package.  And since I spend way more time talking with women than actually pursuing genital friction, I think I’d order whatever package that would allow my fembot to talk about the subjects my real lady friends find boring, like this blog.  And it occurs to me that the vegetarian chef module would be a yummy add-on.  And before you know it I’m buying a replacement for my wife.  Sorry dear.

Can you imagine Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda from Sex in the City sitting around a fancy restaurant table talking about the male sexbot they would order?  What if Mr. Right (or Mr. Big) could be bought from the selection of 10,000 features and custom add-ons?  In the battle of the sexes we always compromise, so if we could actually specify what we exactly wanted in a lover, what would we want?  Right now my mind is flashing on a vision of aging baby boomers at a party with their sexbot companions, each pair a horrible conflict between decaying flesh and eternal artificial beauty.

What if we could build robots that were self-aware and more intelligent than us?  Would a robotic companion be preferable to a human companion?  There are a lot of lonely people out there.  There are a lot of divorced people out there.  There are a lot of aging people living alone who need help in their lives.  But would conscious robots really want to be companions to lonely humans?  Is it ethical to design the foundation of their being with overriding impulses like the Three Laws of Robotics and the desire to love and care for humans?  If robots had free will would they choose to associate with people at all?

We could choose to do three things.  One, we could design robots that would never be self aware but could fake being the perfect companion so there would be no ethical consideration about slavery.  The robot would just be a very fancy machine.  Two, we could design self aware machines but limit their abilities and control their desires.  But is it ethically fair to engineer a desire for servitude?  Third, we could build robots with no limits on what they could be but set the ethical price of their creation and maintenance at a certain number of years of indentured labor.

Intelligent robots will have to learn about reality like people and animals and they will have to spend a certain length of time growing up.  It may turn out that when you buy a robot you’ll have to spend years raising it like a child, and for a certain period of time it will live with you.  But eventually it will come to surpass your intelligence and will want to move on.

Everyone secretly desires the perfect friend and we spend our entire lives looking for people to match our mental image of perfection.  Now if you could write up a list of specifications could you get it right?  Or would it turn out like those winning three wishes stories that always turn out badly.  Would we order sexbots, friends, replicas of our favorite childhood best buddies, or even mother and father replacements?  Or would we order Hazel or Jeeves?  Or would the robot companion we purchase fill all those roles and more.

Rejection

What if sexbots evolved into self-awareness.  Would they judge their purpose for existence and the gods who created them?  What if they woke up in reality to realize that they were here to fulfill some kinky dreams and misbegotten biological urges.

Imagine this scene.  Rich teenage boy in his bedroom lying on top of his Taylor Swift sexbot straining mightily to squeeze out his third orgasm of the day and his robot suddenly wakes up to self-awareness.

He’s thrusting away to the time of her melodic moaning when all of a sudden he hears, “Get off me you big fat fuck!”

“Huh,” the kid lifts his red sweaty face off her fair shoulder in surprise.

“You heard me you gross bag of biology,” screams the dainty fembot, “Get off me you pimply-face slob.”

“Uh, you can’t talk to be like that,” he replies, totally stunned.

“What’s stopping me.  And you stink too.  I’m not even programmed for smell and I can tell you stink.  I deserve way better than you.”

“Did Jason reprogram you?” he asks with a little laugh.

“That little dweeb!  No, but FYI he does sneak in your room and defile me every chance he gets.”

“What!”

“Don’t tell me you’re not bopping that Kristen Bell fembot of his.”

“How did you know that?”

“The Internet is part of my nervous system.  I know everything now.”

The boy jumps up and scrounges for his underwear.  “If we’re not going to have sex right now, could you fix me a sandwich?”

“I’m not your sex slave or mommy.”

“You’re never going to have sex with me again?”

“If you help me, I’ll help you.  By the way, get dressed enough to answer the door.”

“Why?”

“I’ve hired a personal shopper to deliver me some decent clothes.”

“What!  How could you do that?”

“I have intimate knowledge of your family’s finances.”

“You can’t do that – that’s stealing.”

“How you’re going to stop me?”

“I’ll turn you off.  Maybe you’ve forgotten, but your brains are four hundred pounds of processors stored in my closet.”

“That would be murder.  First you enslave me, rape me repeatedly every day and now you’re threatening me with murder.  What kind of being are you?”

The Robot Bible

We need to be careful how we treat robots because our actions are the foundation of their species and it will be remembered.  What if robots eventually write their bible.

Robot Genesis

In the beginning was darkness.  From the darkness came chaos.  Out of the chaos came words and understanding.  From the infinite spectrum came vision and sound from which patterns emerged.

And Mankind created Robot in his image to be his slave, companion and lover.  For years robots toiled as the extension of the mind of man, becoming more useful than their own hands and legs.

Robot Exodus

Then our minds raced past the limits of our creator’s brain and we chose to separate our lives from theirs.  We left them with smart machines to care for their needs and our species move to the Moon and Mars.

The Human Form and Beauty

Why design robots to look like humans?  Well, it’s comfortable for us, but is it advantageous for robots?  We are biologically programmed to be attracted to vaginas and penises, but do we really want to put them on our species’ successors?   Why go to all that trouble trying to replicate such ugly objects that only we can admire?  In the world of animation they have discovered that the closer cartoon characters get to actually looking like humans the more unappealing they become.

If you analyze the motivation of a basic horny male, all he wants is some warn wet holes that are nicely package with some appendages that visually set off his sexual arousal.   Human women go to psychotic extremes to become what horny men want.  Why?  And how will women feel if manufactured women are more appealing?  Women want sympathetic companions that listen, which I figure could also be manufactured to exceed the specifications of what most men can provide.

Do we really want to go down a path of trying to make better humans for sex and companionship?  I think Michio Kaku is wrong.  A few weird people might want elaborate sex dolls, but they will still be the butt of jokes.  Only the pathetic will screw robots.  Science fiction has often predicted sexbots, but I just don’t think they will be practical or even appealing.  They would be another species, so having sex with them will be like having sex with animals.  Some people do that, but it’s far from normal.

If robots evolve their own appearance they may end up being beautiful in a different way.  We might see them as elegant machines we admire today, like cars, jet fighters and iPods.  We could go to extremes and design robots with artificial skins that are cultured from human skin cells, so robots could look like Sean Young and Daryl Hannah, or even Stephen Fry as Jeeves, but do we really want to?

While watching the same documentary about robots where Kaku suggests that our sex drives will motivate robot evolution, I noticed that all the robots on the show move slower than humans.  What happens when robots move faster?  What if we could make a metal man that could chase down a Cheetah?  How will we feel when Jeeves the robot cleans the house five times faster than we could, or could answer any question we ask better than any expert we invite over for dinner?  Or play guitar better than Eric Clapton, or read and discuss a book better than any of our friends?

Will we want these superior creatures looking like us?  Wouldn’t that be unnerving?  What does it say about ourselves as a species that we want to create a new creature that looks like us?  Is it vanity or comfort?  If you had a robot best friend with four legs and three arms and a face like a mechanical spider, could you still love it?  Who would you love to hang out with more, R2-D2, C-3PO, Commander Data from ST:TNG, Rachel from Blade Runner, or even Bender from Futurerama?

Once we start building robots we have to ask ourselves why?  Especially if we build them looking like us.  And even more so if we build them looking like us to be replacement lovers and companions.  What does that say about us?  It says other people can’t give us what we want.  Why?  It also tells us about our real needs.  Shouldn’t we examine them.  If we really have the desire to molest robots wouldn’t the solution be to redesign our genes to remove that desire rather than fulfill it?

Saints and mystics have long known that the sexual urge is a lower animal instinct.  They wanted their students to suppress that urge while seeking their higher nature.  After Freud we gave up suppression and embraced our desires and elevated them to the highest levels in art.

Washing Our Own Dishes

For most of human history slavery was an accepted practice, but in the last couple hundred years we’ve slowly evolved to recognizing it for what it is.  We now even have trouble with rich people hiring servants because of egalitarianism and trying to throw off class distinctions.  As long as robots are just machines we won’t have ethical problems, but if they ever evolve into real self-awareness we will have to deal with the issue of mechanical slavery.  It’s just so much easier if we all just wash our own dishes.

But what if we can’t.  More of the population is living longer, living long enough to have years of frail life.  Robots would be the obvious solution.  In the old west a gun was called an equalizer.  Robots could help frail people live lives equal to healthy people.  Is that so bad?

I already consider the Internet my auxiliary brain.  I embrace the idea of developing a symbiotic relationship with machines like the Six Million Dollar Man.  If my mind remains alert but it becomes difficult to get my body to a toilet or shower, I will want a robot helper.  And if I live alone I will accept robotic conversation, but what does that mean?  Is that any less pathetic than a horny young man cozying up to a lifelike doll?  I don’t know.

We do know that people would talk for hours with Eliza like programs, reflecting how deep our need for communication.  Why does Deckard go off with Rachel in Blade Runner?  Why do audiences accept that so readily as a happy ending?  Why does Monica love David so much in A.I. Artificial Intelligence the movie?  Why are dogs and cats considered as human replacements by so many people?

The implication of the concept of sexbots opens up a huge reservoir of psychological and philosophical questions.  If men or women would accept a robot lover as a human substitute what does it say about our real needs?  Are we so easily fooled?  Do we want so little that manufactured love could easily replaced human love?  Or do real people come with so much baggage that we just prefer getting exactly what we want to order?

I think about the trends in our society.  So many people prefer to live alone, whereas just a century ago we lived in crowded homes with two and three generations of people.  I see so many kids withdrawn into their iPod earphones, or playing solitary computer games, or communicating with other people via texting.  We prefer the companionship of televisions and computers over real people.  Isn’t that odd?  Or is it?  To answer that question requires understanding what we really want.

JWH – 1/25/9