One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.
The future reality of artificial intelligence seemed to edge a little closer this week with the news that Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Steve Wozniak – along with 1000 researchers – had put their name to an open letter calling for a ban on AI in robotic warfare systems. Meanwhile, in TV and movies we’ve seen an influx of AI-themed stories such as Person of Interest, Her, the upcoming Westworld, and now the science fiction film Ex Machina.
In Ex Machina, we join Caleb, a young coder at a Google-like search engine company (‘Bluebook’) as he finds out that he has won a competition to spend a week with the genius CEO of the company, Nathan (who wrote the company’s search algorithm as a 13-year-old wunderkind). On arriving at the reclusive CEO’s sprawling, wilderness estate, Caleb discovers that he has been recruited to test perhaps the greatest technological development of all time: the creation of an artificial intelligence, embodied in a humanoid robot named Ava.
If you’ve created a conscious machine it’s not the history of man… that’s the history of Gods.
However, as the week progresses Caleb finds himself to be as much of a test subject as Ava, as he is watched on closed circuit monitors while interacting with this non-human intelligence – and as Nathan’s darker side emerges, Caleb is left wondering how much of what he is experiencing is manipulation, and how much is the truth.
Written and directed by Alex Garland, author of The Beach and the pen behind the movie scripts for the apocalyptic sci-fi movies 28 Days Later and Sunshine, Ex Machina is a wonderful meditation on one of the great philosophical questions: what is consciousness/self-awareness, and are we even capable of judging it in anyone but ourselves (in Descartes words, ‘I think, therefore I am’, as the limit of our knowledge on consciousness). As such a couple of thought experiments related to consciousness are mentioned during the movie, such as the Turing Test, and the Knowledge Argument, aka ‘Mary in the Black and White Room’ – this latter in particular almost serves as a template for the script itself.
Here’s the trailer:
The very small cast (basically just 4 actors, only 3 of whom have speaking roles – Caleb, Nathan and Ava) and one location may have been partly decided upon for budgeting reasons (though the elegant design and special effects certainly weren’t skimped on), but in truth these elements provide the power of Ex Machina, enhancing the feeling of close personal interaction between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ intelligence, and also projecting the feeling of imprisonment upon the viewer themselves.
Because as much as Ex Machina is about what it is to be a conscious being, the storyline goes a level deeper to ask what it is to have ‘free will’, but be subjugated. And whether Garland meant it to or not, the film riffs on overarching themes of male dominance and women as objects: ‘artificial’ beings created by a male ‘god’, kept imprisoned and repressed, and used for sexual gratification (although to be fair, Nathan notes that in adding a vagina to a robot, he also added ‘pleasure circuits’ for the artificial consciousness to experience).
Another key question raised by Ex Machina is one which we may have to answer fairly soon: at what point does an AI transition from being an object – a piece of technology – to being an entity, with associated rights. Nathan is most certainly an asshole, but from one point of view (AI as a technological object) all he is doing is modifying and upgrading machines.
From the other point of view (AI as an autonomous consciousness deserving of its own rights) he is basically exploiting and, to an extent, ‘killing off’ conscious entities. It was quite interesting (and shocking) to me how easily I abandoned any human ‘allegiance’ while watching this film, and sided with the machine intelligence – to the extent that I was happily expecting a crime to be committed against a technology genius, for the ‘crime’ of upgrading his machines.
The movie certainly doesn’t break a lot of new ground, with its roots in the archetypal Frankenstein story. Ava at times seems a century-old echo of Maria from Metropolis, and any fan of Bladerunner will probably also see similarities to both the physicality of ’pleasure-model’ Pris and the elegant intelligence of Rachael throughout Ex Machina. And when Caleb gets so far down the rabbit-hole that he starts wondering if he also is a robot – with implanted memories, fooled into believing he is human – we cannot help but see some of Deckard. (Even Nathan’s use of the massive data behind search engine queries as the basis for creating the machine-intelligence of Ava was foreshadowed by the TV show Person of Interest.)
Where Ex Machina hits the mark is in the afore-mentioned personal (and at times, claustrophobic) nature of the film, ably assisted by a fantastic ambient soundtrack (co-created by former Portishead member Geoff Barrow ). Garland’s debut in the directing chair is an impressive one, subtly keeping the viewer in close contact with the actors’ thoughts, often through facial expression alone, as well as capable of creating some highly memorable moments (one surreal dance scene could be straight out of a Kubrick movie…see below). Ex Machina is a slow burn, which is perfect for an exploration of what it is to be ‘human’ – but if you like ‘splodey action stuff, this movie may not be for you. If you’re a deep thinker about consciousness and artificial intelligence, you’ll likely love it.
Garland doesn’t dumb things down, showing good taste in the exposition and putting his trust in the intelligence of viewers. For example, at one point where Nathan is lying, in your head you know Ava has analysed his micro gestures and knows he is lying, but a less confident film-maker might have had her explicitly say “Lie” (the way in which she responsed to half-truths earlier in the film when interacting with Caleb). Instead, Garland just has her give a little half-smile, and the viewer knows what this means.
Nathan too, while quite obviously the antagonist of the story, is still fleshed out as a real person rather than a cartoon villain….we’re intrigued by him and what makes him tick beneath that dominating, alpha-male geek persona. His heavy drinking perhaps may be a clue that the things he is doing are having an impact on his soul.
The only part of the film where I noticed overt exposition was when Nathan asked Caleb to tell him what the Turing Test means – but this was probably a key enough point to warrant it, and it was done smoothly (Nathan doesn’t need to be educated; he asks Caleb to be sure Caleb understands).
Ex Machina is superbly cast, with top-shelf performances from the few actors involved: Oscar Isaac embodies the intellectually superior, alpha-male tech-bro Nathan, while Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb portrays the flipside – a compassionate, deep thinker, with an inner strength. Sonoya Mizuno was given a tough job with the line-less Kyoko, but does an excellent job in mixing subservience with her sporadic threatening coldness. And Alicia Vikander is stunning as Ava – the perfect match of a new AI’s fierce intelligence mixed with a newborn innocence, brought to life with nice subtle touches through her movements and speech patterns to only *just* give the slightest hint that the character is something other than human.
There may be some who will argue that certain elements of the plot reinforce negative tropes concerning both women and artificial intelligence. This may be a warranted to an extent – however, to go in the opposite direction at these times may well have stereotyped women and AI even more so. Sometimes you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Overall Ex Machina is a beautifully designed, shot and acted film, on a fascinating topic that is certainly in the spotlight at this point in history. Highly recommended.
(Apologies for the vagueness throughout the review – just trying to avoid spoilers. Would very much enjoy a discussion of some of the details of the film in the comments section though)