Ex Machina, AIs and the End of Mankind

Our real world is looking more and more like a Science Fiction future everyday.  We carry around glass bars in our pockets that give us access to the entirety of humankind's knowledge.  Cars can park themselves.  There are working models of robot prosthetic hands.  EX MACHINA gives us a world in our very near future in which an artificial intelligence program has been created that is so advanced it is self aware and nearly indistinguishable from human.  And you know what the most frightening part is? It's actually happened.  A robot has achieved a brief moment of self awareness.  Time to panic.  SKYNET IS REAL AND WE'RE ALL ABOUT TO BE ENSLAVED BY CHROME MURDER SKELETONS FROM THE FUTURE!

Actually, no, it's not nearly as bad as all that. Selmer Bringsjord, a professor at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has demonstrated that a NAO companion robot has been able to exhibit a brief moment of self awareness, using a simplified version of the classic logic puzzle know as The King's Wise Men.  Three robots are told of a “dumbing pill,” and presumably a placebo “pill” (a button on top of their heads that will take away their ability to speak.)  All three are “given” a pill (tapped on the head) but only two are actually robbed of their ability to speak.  They don't know what “pill” they were “given.”  Each robot would answer “I don't know.” But only one can answer.  This robot then makes the logic leap that if it can speak, then it wasn't given the “dumbing pill.”

That adorable little robot solving a simple induction logic puzzle may or may not be the start of a chilling, future murder-scape, but it certainly is a milestone in the advancement of Artificial Intelligence.  And if we fast forward a few years, it is easy to picture the future of EX MACHINA.

EX MACHINA is a wonderful look into the question of AI, both in feasibility, and morality.  An exploration of Artificial Intelligence programming and testing, the film focuses on something called the Turing test, an evaluation designed to determine whether or not an AI program exhibits intelligence that is on the same level or even indistinguishable from human.  In practice, a human evaluator would judge conversations between a human and the AI seeing if the AI generated human-like responses.  Essentially, the Turing test will see whether or not a computer program can fool a human into thinking that said AI is human itself. (Some spoilers ahead.)

A young coder, Caleb, is selected to participate in a Turning test with a brand new AI.  He is flown out to the remote estate of Nathan, the owner of a Google pastiche and the creator of a new AI.  He is to spend a week with Nathan and the AI, where they will conduct the test.  The AI, Ava is contained in a breathtaking artificial body, given the appearance of a young attractive woman by its creator.  Traditionally, a Turning test would be blind, and there would be some sort of control.  If the participant knew that they were interacting with a computer program, the test just wouldn't work.  However, Caleb is fully aware that Ava is not human.  She has a body that is shaped like a woman's and she has a woman's face, but her appearance is that of an android.  Nathan wants to see if despite knowing that Ava is artificial, if Caleb will view her as “human” by the end of the test. 

But, the implications of a sentient AI are far more complicated than just the “hows” and “ifs.”  EX MACHINA explores those implications in a way that touches our sense of self, and plays on our sympathy, empathy, and ultimately our fear.

Our self awareness and our developed set of emotions are what make us stand out from other species on this planet, and also from our current set of AI.  If we are able to develop AI that can successfully replicate those feelings and that acute self awareness, is that AI not in some ways human?  And in turn, should that AI not be given the rights that any other human is given?

Here come those spoilers.

At the end of the film, we see that Nathan has in fact succeeded in creating an AI that can pass itself off as human, or at the very least as something that should be given the respect and rights that humans have, or at least that is how Caleb views Ava.  We also see that Nathan has given Ava one of the most frightening human traits as well: cunning.  By the end of the film, Ava has manipulated Caleb into helping her escape the estate, kill Nathan and be free in the real world.  It feels like Nathan gets his comeuppance, and as if Caleb and Ava will ride off into the sunset together.  However, Ava has no interest in Caleb other than to use him for her plan, and she locks him in the estate and leaves him to die.  That is where we are left at the end of the film. An intelligent, cunning, manipulative AI with no sympathy or empathy that looks exactly like one of us just on the loose in the real world. 

So many other films have shown us the frightening implications of advanced AI.  The MATRIX had robots that stuck us in little jars for power.  TERMINATOR had robots from the future come back in time to try to stop the leader of the human resistance, once by trying to kill his mother, and then by trying to kill him as a child.  (ONE AND TWO ARE THE ONLY GOOD ONES SHUT UP!) There's 2001, CLASS OF 1999 and so on. Those movies all show intelligent robots as something way in the future, something that doesn't seem plausible in the next few years.  EX MACHINA gives us Ava, something that not only seems plausible in the next few years, but also inevitable, and that is far more terrifying than any robot octopus, shiny liquid time-travelling killer cop, or cyborg murder teacher.

In addition to Other Worlds Austin, Eric is a contributor at Blood Over Texas and The Movie Press dot com, as well as a few other now defunct sites you've never heard of.  After watching Superhost as a child his life long dream is to dress up like Godzilla and smash a model of Tokyo."