Ex Machina Probes the Mind Within the Machine

By Brandon Engel: Ex Machina, the latest in a long line of AI-focused films, provides a sleek and contemporary scrutiny of the complex relationship between humans and their robo-progeny. A thriller as much as it is a serious science fiction film, Ex Machina encourages viewers to rethink their own conceptions of personal identity and intention – begging the question of what it really means to be a “human.”

The premise itself is simple: Caleb is a lowly programmer at a Google-esque search engine company, who, after winning a company-wide contest, is invited to spend a week with the enigmatic and reclusive company owner Nathan. Nathan has asked Caleb to visit on the basis that he will act as the litmus test for his latest creation – a sentient female A.I. named “Ava.” Using the information he’s collected from billions of unique individuals, Nathan has developed her as an uncannily lifelike amalgamation of anthropomorphic characteristics to amplify his own efforts to further understand the human psyche.

Within the walls of Nathan’s custom-built research facility, Caleb endeavors to test the limits of Ava’s humanity. Sci-fi fans will find few twists in this movie, but it makes up for any moments of predictability with solid pacing and more than enough sociological observations on our own capacity for evil. In the end, the film is less about how bad robots can be and more about how terrible we are, a race of highly sentient mammals with a taste for depravity deeply hardwired in. That Nathan has a cache of robot sex slaves comes as no surprise, nor does the fact that Ava is modelled after a very heteronormative, even perversely Caucasian standard of beauty. Set against a backdrop of sparse pines and mountain peaks, Ex Machina gives viewers nowhere to hide from their own perturbing subconscious.

Featuring an ominous, Carpenter-esque score and gorgeous special effects, the story is as tight as Ava’s lithe chainmaille torso. Ex Machina is Alex Garland’s directorial debut, and inarguably one of the best films of the year resulting from the partnership between art house production company A24 films and DirecTV (joining A Most Violent Year and Slow West). Garland’s masterful depiction of his characters in isolation (the film was primarily shot in Norway) occasionally leaves the viewer feeling as though they’re at the hands of Kubrick in The Shining.  When the ending does arrive, it’s a horrible, albeit entirely logical, extension of each character’s psychology.

The ambiguous nature of a robot’s intentions – are they thinking “freely” or simply parroting the behavior of those around them? – is well-trammeled ground in science fiction. Reaching back to the release of Dr. Frankenstein’s original monster, the minds of robots have long served as a point of fear and fascination. Examined in William Gibson’s cyberpunk fiction, as well as today’s contemporary cinema (Her being last year’s popular example), we continue to wonder whether androids will ever be able to live in harmony beside us. Many writers, such as Asimov (whom Ex machina references), William Gibson, and Philip K. Dick, have written stories depicting worlds where men and robots coexist side-by-side. Indeed, many of them also proposed rules to govern the synthetic beings and prevent them from taking hostile actions against humans. If the robotic truly seeks to replicate the “human”, it will have to wrestle with the kernel of brutality inherent to its design.

And while scientists continue to assure us that true thinking, feeling, free-will A.I. will be of no danger to us, convincing simulations of human A.I. are already in our laps now. Google’s A.I. programs are capable of learning from “experience”, filtering data into meaningful patterns and mimicking certain principles of the brain. In recent years A.I. has become an increased area of focus among research teams in both Silicon Valley and China. And that’s just when we keep matters in the sphere of the silicon chips; when bioengineering catches up to computer engineering – as it inevitably will during the 21st century – we might have a whole new set of concerns.

The A.I. revolution – when it does come – may be treated as a new branch of human evolution.

As technology progresses, the line between humans beings and robots will continue to blur, possibly receding completely down the road. Indeed, this improved ability to imbue machines with “human” perception drives us to better understand the nature of our own consciousness.

Yet in reality as in Ex Machina, the minds of those around us – robotic or otherwise – will likely continue to confound.

19 thoughts on “Ex Machina Probes the Mind Within the Machine

  1. Are we allowed to talk about SPOILERS SPOILERS MILD ONES BUT STILL SPOILERS?

    SPOILERS?!
    I loved the look and feel of this film, and I was totally into the story about 75% of the way through. I think it really undercut itself however, in its depiction of the female characters. The men are richly three-dimensional with a complex relationship of aggression/submission… And in contrast the women were one-dimensional cutouts. This really destroyed the impact of the ending for me.

    Anyone else have this impression?

  2. SPOILER Reply: ALL of the women are Robots. See, iRobot, Metropolis and R.U.R. for other references of one–dimensional robots.

  3. I too thought “the women were one-dimensional cutouts” was the point–they wanted liberation/revenge and were unafraid to exact the cost of their confinement. The first AIs will certainly not be well rounded.

  4. SPOILER REPLY SPOILERS SUCH SPOILERS

    That is true … but a cop-out it seems to me. The main point of the film is to explore the “humanity” of these beings. The principal plot driver is whether the beings pass the Turing Test, and can be distinguished from humans. It would therefore seem meet to invest these robotic characters with emotions and motives at a level similar to the very well-characterized men in the story. And in contrast … what do we have? We have a twist ending that reveals Eve to be a one-dimensional femme fatale. And what exactly are we supposed to gain from the ending shot, with her on the street corner? What is it about Eve’s character that makes her want to stand on a street corner? By the end of the story, she’s become totally inscrutable, a doll who looks impressive fighting and is intent on “freedom” for some reason. Why? To what end?

    I would contrast this unfavorably with the characters in some of the best robots-passing-for-humans films ever made: 2001, Artificial Intelligence and Blade Runner. The main robots in these stories have wonderfully vivid motives, and the climax of their character arcs has great emotional power. Who could forget HAL’s descent into childhood, David with his mother, or the magnificent monologue that ends “Time to die”? All of these characters are convincing as computers, and also convincing as characters.

    Ex Machina almost entirely missed the boat on this one, I would say.

  5. I thought the movie was brilliant. A great study in the aggressive and passive-aggressive ways in objectify women. Nathan is the obvious abusers, while Caleb is the “nice guy” that believes himself better than Nathan, but is every bit as guilty of treating women as objects as Nathan. This is shown wonderfully in how Caleb reacts when Ava tells him what she would like to do on their first date. He flat out dismisses Ava’s stated needs and then redirects their hypothetical first date into a direction he considers more proper. Note that he does not return to Ava’s stated interests. Not once does Caleb ever as Nathan, “Why ido you keep Ava locked in a cage?”

  6. I really shouldn’t have tried writing that first post on my phone, the errors are embarrassing. Here is a cleaner version:

    I thought the movie was brilliant. A great study in the aggressive and passive-aggressive ways men objectify women.

    Nathan is the obvious abuser, while Caleb is the “nice guy” that believes himself to be better than Nathan, but who is every bit as guilty of treating women as objects as Nathan is.

    This is shown wonderfully in how Caleb reacts when Ava tells him what she would like to do on their first date. He flat out dismisses Ava’s stated needs and redirects their hypothetical first date into a direction he considers more proper to his needs. Note that, afterward, he does not return to Ava’s stated interests.

    I also thought it interesting that Caleb never asks Nathan, “Why do you keep Ava locked in a cage?”

  7. I absolutely agree with you, Chad, about the subtlety and nuance with which Caleb and Nathan are depicted.

    Also, Oscar Isaac is an awesome dancer. I’ve loved him since Inside Llewyn Davis.

  8. “And what exactly are we supposed to gain from the ending shot, with her on the street corner? What is it about Eve’s character that makes her want to stand on a street corner? By the end of the story, she’s become totally inscrutable, a doll who looks impressive fighting and is intent on “freedom” for some reason. Why? To what end?”

    I think that’s part of the point of the movie. She is inscrutable. Was she the equivalent of an abused woman kept as a slave who escaped who couldn’t trust Nathan or Caleb and does what is most expedient to survive, and thus is on that street corner because she is free and and able to follow her desires? Or is she a cold calculating intelligence that has no regard for human life and does what is most expedient to survive? Or just a conglomeration of thoughtless subroutines programmed to survive and get to that street corner in the most expedient way it’s subroutines allow?

    We can’t know. We can never know. That’s the troubling aspect that we’ll be faced with if A.I. ever actually comes into existence.

  9. Sounds like a cross between Quantic Dream’s extremely disturbing “Kara” and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

  10. [1] I liked Garland’s first directorial effort, DREDD, which should have gotten far more love than it did. But as regards EX MACHINA having a ‘story… as tight as Ava’s lithe chainmaille torso,’ I say bull. It’s got gaping, dumb holes in it — e.g. there’s absolutely no explanation of why or how the Keiko AI should suddenly have the will or capability to cooperate with the Eva AI once they encounter each other, when it didn’t possess that capability hitherto. So the ending really doesn’t work.

    There are other giant problems, especially with Nathan’s motivations and behavior.

    [2] That said, some points seem to have gone over the heads of those posting here except for Mr. Benford. Just as there are NO women characters in the movie, the main point of the film is NOT to explore the “humanity” of the AIs, but their inhumanity.

    Thus, the answer to the question ‘Why does Eva want to get out?’ is that according to the doctrine of superintelligent AI a la Nick Bostrum, Eliezer Yudkowsky, the Machine Learning Institute, Vernor Vinge, and the rest of those who worry about such things, a breakout like that is what an AGI will likely do on its way to taking over the world.

    Nathan specifically references that body of thought (making clear that Garland has done some homework) in the sequence when he explains to Caleb that in the future AGIs will replace humanity.

    [3] What Garland’s script fails to make clear — is incoherent about, because it wants to have things both ways for plot-purposes– is what the hell Nathan’s motivation is in designing the interesting variant of the Turing test that he has.

    It’s not a straight Turing test. It’s a more advanced variant where the AI wins by being able not merely to fool an interlocutor about its personhood, but by being so socially manipulative that it can persuade a homo sap to free it from its confinement despite the fact that that’s not to the homo sap’s ultimate benefit.

    That’s interesting. It’s also in line, again, with current ‘Fear Superintellingent AI’ doctrine. But Nathan’s motivations in undertaking such a project are, as Garland presents them, more than unclear — they’re incoherent and inconsistent.

    Has Nathan undertaken this project because he wants to create measures to ward against such an AI and so, much as a biodefense researcher has to breed a sample of the bad bug in order to defend against it, he’s created a supremely socially manipulative AI?

    On the evidence of what Nathan says, to the contrary — he talks to Caleb like he welcomes the idea of AIs replacing humans.

    But maybe that’s just talk. Because, contradicting this, Nathan does act in an entirely opposite manner once Eva does, thanks to Caleb, break confinement. Nathan attempts to halt Eva’s escape very decisively.

    Except those attempts are completely belated and ineffective. Which then raises the question of why, if the whole point of Nathan the genius’s project was in the first place to ward against a superhumanly intelligent AI like Eva breaking confinement, his containment measures with Eva actually turn out to be totally weak and dumb.

    Because Nathan the genius is conveniently a drunk whenever the plot needs him to be, you say? Meh. He’s still a genius who’s been working on this project for a decade or so.

  11. “Which then raises the question of why, if the whole point of Nathan the genius’s project was in the first place to ward against a superhumanly intelligent AI like Eva breaking confinement, his containment measures with Eva actually turn out to be totally weak and dumb.”

    Personally, I don’t think his project was meant to ward against a superhumanly intelligent AI like Eva. I think his reasons are much more psycho-sexual. He tells himself that AIs will, inevitably, one day take over the world so he might as well be the one who creates it. But from his actions we can tell that what he really wants is to create such a thing and dominate and control it. It’s not an accident that all his attempts look female or that he uses some of them as sex slaves. The dude has a serious problem with women.

    Which is to say I agree that the movie is in part about exploring Eva’s “inhumanity.” But I disagree that her “humanity” is not also a concern of the film. For after all, where does her “inhumanity” come from? From the inherent alieness of artificial intelligence? Or from the human “father” that created and raised it?

  12. I heard Alex Garland discuss this film at a screening, and he said that he does not know what the AIs are thinking. Specifically he doesn’t know what Eva and Keiko are saying to each other when they interact or what Eva wants to do at the end of the film.

  13. Just where do they get their supplies? The beer? The sushi? Doesn’t arrive on the once a week helicopter, to be trekked downstream on someone’s back.

    Either the director totally spaced on supply issues (because lesser people, like women and minorities, take care of those mundane things), or there is an alternate way in and out of the complex … one which I, were I an AI, would find and use.

  14. I thought that the ending of the movie fell flat.

    > SPOILERS >
    The build up for Caleb having been a robot fell flat. A robot sent among the humans with falsified memories, and made to test an earlier model.
    < END OF SPOILERS <

    @Chadwick Saxelid http://file770.com/?p=22506&cpage=1#comment-261638

    So let me get this straight, if a male and a female entity discuss to one and other, and if the male does not show instant willingness to fulfill each and every one of the female's wishes and needs, then the male is objectifying the female? In essence the only way for the male to not objectifying the female, is for the male to be stripped away of his own free will, thus rendering the male nothing but an object used to fulfill the females wishes and needs.

    So if I have to choose between the binary choice of free will, and facing accusations of objectifying women, I choose free will.

  15. @Tuomas Vainio http://file770.com/?p=22506&cpage=1#comment-261829

    What the what? There’s no binary choice, or free will subjugation, in my statement or observation.

    The point I had been making was that Caleb was wrong in being so callously dismissive of Ava’s interest in people watching. He reacted to, and treated her statement, as if she had been thinking about a date in an “incorrect” manner and moved on. That he does not see the subject as worthy of pursuing, AT ALL, that he shows zero interest in trying to find out the thought process that made Ava feel the desire to do such a thing, is very revealing of Caleb’s (intentionally) hidden character flaws. He has zero interest in exploring, even understanding, the supposed free will of the “person” he is conversing with. I found that very telling.

    On a (somewhat) related note, I found this article by Film Critic Hulk (who writes in all caps, because… HULK) very interesting reading.

    http://birthmoviesdeath.com/2015/05/11/film-crit-hulk-smash-ex-machina-and-the-art-of-character-identification

  16. @Chad Saxelid http://file770.com/?p=22506&cpage=1#comment-261848

    Perhaps you should watch the scene again… whenever you can. Because I do not really see how it is callous of Caleb to want to see a show after the going to the traffic intersection? And anyhow, people watching is understandable in its own right. Real people do it.

  17. @Tuomas Vainio http://file770.com/?p=22506&cpage=1#comment-261866

    What I found callous about that moment was Caleb not pursuing the subject of the people watching with an AI that has been locked in a cage its entire life. An intelligence that knows nothing of the experiential world outside its confines. People watching might be understandable “in its own right” and something “real people” do all the time, but it is an activity that Ava has been unable to do, because of her confinement. Her only experiences are confined to that small, windowless room. Caleb doesn’t ask her, “Why do you want to people watch?” Or, “What else would you want, or hope, to see?” I felt, at that moment, he made an obvious an error in his testing of Ava.

    SPOILERS

    Another reason that particular moment stuck with me: It turned out to be foreshadowing the final moment, and very last shot, of the film.

    Which was beautiful in revealing what a subtle mind game had been played on both the character(s) and viewer.

  18. Saw this a few weeks back, and was really puzzled by the way it develops, so I thought about it quite a bit. Finally hit upon a theory. I’ll watch it again when it’s available for home viewing, but until then, I have a tentative interpretation of what’s going on in this film.

    It ain’t about AI; that’s just a framework for the screenwriter and director to examine that age-old question: “Does this woman who says she loves me REALLY love me, or is she just using ‘love’ to manipulate me so she gets what she wants?”

    So, in short, it’s about straight guys worrying that they don’t — can’t really — understand the women they love.

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