There are many reasons to be impressed with Ex Machina, the recently released, exceptionally well-done sci-fi thriller directed by Alex Garland, starring Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander. Most notably, however, is its ability to be both ordinary and unique at the same time.
As any good futuristic, mystery thriller does, Ex Machina forces viewers to question who knows what, who’s outsmarting who and what – or who – is real, perceived or imagined, holding its audience in a controlled suspense throughout.
A deeper dive into the core of the movie, however, reveals a strikingly smart, unique and profoundly powerful exploration into the very essence of existence, weaving together thought-provoking questions on everything from philosophy to psychology, language to sexuality, religion to death and art to technology.
Caleb, an eager, young and intelligent coder for Bluebook – the “world’s most popular Internet search engine” – is chosen as the winner of a weeklong visit to the remote estate and research facility of Bluebook’s CEO, Nathan, a technology titan and prodigy who began writing code at the age of thirteen.
Upon learning that Nathan has created a female robot named Ava, Caleb is tasked with performing a “Turing Test”* through a series of interviews to determine whether she demonstrates true AI (artificial intelligence) – that is, whether she can think and feel for herself, or whether she is simply simulating human emotion (“simulation vs. actual,” as they say).
Likening Ava to a computer who can play chess, Caleb reminds us that the real question is not whether she can have a conversation (knows how to play chess), but whether she demonstrates awareness of her own mind and those of others (a computer that knows it’s playing chess and knows what chess actually is). Simply put: if Ava has consciousness.
From the first moment Ava appears on screen, there’s little doubt that she exhibits humanlike qualities – designed with a humanoid face, hands and feet that are attached to a half-transparent, half-mesh body structure. With each interview session, however, we quickly come to realize just how advanced of an AI Ava is, challenging Caleb to reveal more of himself since a one-sided conversation is “not the foundation upon which a friendship is built” and throwing some of his words back at him in a playful, yet earnest manner.
Her ability to question, reason and assess Caleb is uncanny, and perhaps an indication that we shouldn’t underestimate her humanlike qualities: “What will happen to me if I fail your test?” “Do you have someone who switches you off if you don’t perform as you should…then why should I?”
It is the intellectual, philosophical and at times humorous dialogue between Caleb and Nathan between interview sessions that form the crux of this film. While their conversations are not overly long – and never boring – the ideas expressed and questions posed are difficult to fully digest in 5-minute scenes, leaving viewers with much to ponder upon the film’s conclusion.
“Can you give me an example of consciousness – human or animal – that exists without a sexual dimension?”, Nathan asks Caleb in response to his question on why he created Ava with sexuality.
Showing him a painting of “automatic art” by Jackson Pollock – the “drip painter” who let “his mind go blank, and his hand go where it wanted…not deliberate, not random, someplace in between” – Nathan asks Caleb to “engage intellect” (a reference to Star Trek) and reverse the challenge: what would happen if Pollock couldn’t paint anything unless he knew exactly why he was doing it?
“He never would have made a single mark,” Caleb replies. Precisely. “The challenge”, Nathan says, “is not to act automatically. It’s to find an action that is not automatic. From talking, to breathing, to painting.” A point he uses to reiterate that, just as Ava was “programmed to be heterosexual,” Caleb, too, was programmed a certain way.
The philosophical underpinnings don’t stop there. Reminiscent of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Caleb recalls a story of Mary in the black and white room, who’s spent her entire life in black and white and experiences color for the first time after stepping outside.
“The point is to show the difference between a human mind and a computer,” Caleb says. “The human is when she walks outside and the computer is Mary in the black and white room.”
The film would not be complete, of course, without some mention of the future and the impact of AIs on humanity – an increasingly relevant question for us to ponder, as the creation of a “real” Ava becomes ever more plausible in our world of rapid technological advancements.
“One day the AIs are gonna 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,” Nathan says. “Don’t feel bad for Ava, feel bad for yourself, man.”
What is consciousness? How does experience relate to consciousness? How do we define humanity? Is human thought the only kind of thought? Is sexuality inextricable from interaction? Are we being watched? Can we control technology or will it eventually control – maybe even overpower – us? These are just some of the questions that Ex Machina – which comes from the Greek term “Deus Ex Machina” meaning “God from the machine”– leaves us with.
But, maybe the most important question is the one that Nathan poses to Caleb in response to why he created Ava in the first place.
“That’s a weird question – wouldn’t you if you could?”
It’s a question certainly worth pondering.
*Learn what a Turing Test is from our previous blog post on The Imitation Game.
This piece was also published on The Huffington Post.