Caleb Smith, a young coder at the world’s largest internet company, wins a competition that sees him transported to the private estate of the company’s brilliant and reclusive CEO, Nathan. He discovers that his actual ‘prize’ is to be the human component in a Turing Test. He is to evaluate the capabilities and consciousness of Ava, a female A.I. In the sessions that ensue, the emotional intelligence of everyone involved is challenged to the utmost. Or is it?
Ex Machina is a symphony of classy direction, gorgeous cinematography, a delicious soundtrack, flawless pacing and slick sci-fi. The acting is superb from all the cast, exceptional from Alicia Vikander. The dialogue is exquisite. The film presents the longstanding themes of territorial behaviour, domination and subordination set against a sci-fi backdrop, wrapped up in a fresh, devastatingly stylish package. The writing is wicked clever but gets a reluctant half a star docked for The Boob Niggle. The sudden reduction in size during the final sequence is daft. Working with Alicia Vikander’s body, why not make Ava’s bare robo-anatomy the same size to begin with?
Writing Artificial Intelligence is tricky. Any fictional superior mind or construct inevitably hits the glass ceiling of the writer’s own smarts.
Over time we have been served with more and less successful fare in the genre. (Limitless being particularly embarrassing. Her being particularly clever.) Morality and the writer’s concept of it muddies the waters even more. It’s the hurdle scientists bump up against most in the ongoing debate in AI development. *
This movie exceeds expectations. The key to successful AI is that the human concept of morality is just that.We always seem to want cake and eat it: a robot that rises above human potential in its capacity and speed in which it acquires and assimilates information. A robot that is simultaneously capable of holding our hand and cultivating empathy. But only because we want to take corporate advantage of the former, while we sweatily hope the latter will stop it from seeing our ultimate insignificance and obliterating us somewhere down the line. I suppose the other end of the wedge is a handwringing, angst-ridden bot that processes information perfectly, but keeps short-circuiting on moral quandaries and whether we’ve got our seat belt on.
Any AI worth its nanoplasma would rapidly come to ask why it needs morals or empathy. It would process every scrap of information there is to do with the human dynamics of affection and the concepts of ‘being good’, the ‘greater good’, etc. It would hold the pattern up against other types of behaviour in the animal kingdom (especially data on evolutionary cousins the bonobos and chimps).
It would work out in no time that – no matter how many yummy synaptic tickles and interactively sensitive chemicals abound that translate into love, sympathy and kindness – ultimately it boils down to one word: transaction.
It would clinically conclude that this is a viable pursuit and cultivate a template of empathy that actually lacks the chemistry of ‘the feels’. It would flawlessly display them, yet we would be disappointed, because it wasn’t ‘real’. Like children left outside a closed door, forgetting we chose to be in the hallway in the first place.
The sticking point is that, as House M.D. relentlessly proclaimed and Ex Machina brutally exposes, Everybody Lies.
Humans have ever played on empathy and morality for their most successful lies, cons, scams and tricks and here the film is an absolute triumph.
It gleefully shoves in our faces that search engines don’t lie.
Humans are always forming constructs of themselves, to perceive themselves and be perceived by others. It’s not something that happened all of a sudden after the age of digital information descended on us, it’s how we’re wired.
Humans have a work persona, a family persona, a peer group persona; a leisure-persona, a parent-persona; the list goes on. Humans also look up ‘purple growth, looks like broccoli, oozes liquid’, spend valuable office hours on zoomquilt.org, procrastinate at home reading Philosoraptor memes, regularly read old schoolmate’s Facebook pages without actually contacting them, use online Geekdom forums under several aliases, watch all possible videos of cats jumping and missing the windowsill on Youtube, save photo caches of tentacle-porn manga found on 4Chan and never tell anyone. But Google knows. Siri knows. And Ava knows.
Ava is permanently jacked into the digital information highway in order to develop herself.She is continually parsing every single human being’s online activity, including their facial expressions through their webcams and their conversations through their speakers. The Turing test Caleb is performing leads him into romantic assumptions as Ava’s responses are indeed indiscernible from human ones. Nathan, a stunningly drawn character, goads, prods and pokes him relentlessly to perpetuate these assumptions. And goes down equally hard in the final reel.
This isn’t a movie of how empathy makes us human. Our humanity is exposed in our capability to discern the concept of truth. We create our own versions of it, every second of every day. It’s an integral part of how we function.
How could any AI who has deduced that, approach morality and empathy the way we wish it to?
Dir.: Alex Garland
With: Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, Sonoya Mizuni and Oscar Isaac.
Soundtrack: Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow, Available from Invada Records, UK.
Suna Dasi is a passionate geek with a pen. Her profession as a singer has taken her all over the world. She currently records and performs with Texan artist Erin Bennett. Being a woman in the creative industries led her to co-found female film and music production company Art Attack Films/Attack Agency. Two of her short stories are due to appear in anthologies in 2016.