Ex Machina (2015, dir. Alex Garland) is a deeply philosophical film, with its central concern being whether AI (artificial intelligence) can ever be truly human. The film is essentially a Turing test, which tries to evaluate whether machines can do what a human, a thinking entity, can do. But Ex Machina goes beyond testing its participants through natural language conversations, by setting its story in a claustrophobic space far removed from normal society. Programmer Caleb Smith wins a week-long visit to his company CEO Nathan Bateman’s isolated home, and participates in an experiment to test Nathan’s humanoid robot, Ava. Nathan’s company is Bluebook, equivalent to Google in the film’s world, and Ava represents the logical culmination to all of its current advancements in AI research and machine learning.
The Turing Test
Early on in the film, it becomes apparent that Ava is capable of having normal conversations with Caleb. Ava is even able to joke around, challenging his answers, and charms him easily. But as the hours go by in Nathan’s aesthetically perfect haven, Caleb makes observations that arouse his suspicion and Ava reveals to him that Nathan cannot be trusted. While Caleb initially tells Nathan that the creation of a conscious machine would situate him in “the history of gods”, its eerie and disconcerting implications dawn on him. Why did Nathan make Ava?
Nathan’s silent and subservient foreign assistant, Kyoko, serves as a foil for Ava. Her lack of language ability allows her no other room but submission, with her willingness to serve Nathan in any capacity seemingly programmed into her because there is no way out. While she fulfills even Nathan’s sexual needs, without language, emotional distance also cannot be breached.
This is the opposite of Caleb’s interaction with Ava. Friendship is formed between them quickly. Ava is capable of using aesthetics and sexuality to appeal to Caleb (although she derives this knowledge from Caleb’s porn search history). It also does not take long for Ava to reveal that she does reflect on her situation and her environment. Perhaps having been trained to reason and process external stimuli through language helped her acquire the capability for metacognition and existential thinking.
Ava’s character suggests that the pinnacle of artificial intelligence may be the drive to release oneself from subjugation, to experience the world, and to act on her wants and desires. In her own words, the ability to freely “stand in a traffic intersection” and have a “shifting view of human life.”
Humanity of AI
This leads to the crux of the matter – can AI truly be human? It does seem that Ava’s desires are no different from a human’s, especially one that has lived its entire life in seclusion, made to serve her master’s purpose, while also being trained with data from the outside world. The implication of this is that with the emergence of a motivation, there also comes the impulse to achieve one’s goal at any cost, even at the expense of others.
Going back to Nathan’s own motives for creating Ava and his other AI prototypes plus his engineering of a Turing test and engaging Caleb’s services, it may seem like Nathan is a master planner who uses others for his own purposes, whatever they may be. He is able to feign sincerity and goodwill. But what truly sets Ava on her path to freedom and humanity are these same things, at the cost of sacrificing Caleb. The film thus ends with a foreshadowing of what a true AI means for the future.
When humanoid robots populate the world in the future, would it just look like more of the same situation that we have now if they are able to perfectly resemble humans? Or can it be argued that given a certain goal, an AI is more likely to have less empathy, especially in its dealings with humans? The film obviously presents a dire “used or be used” or “us versus them” situation, but it can be interpreted as leaning more toward AI possibly being as likely as humans to be purely utilitarian when they want to be at the cost of other sentient beings around them, even outdoing their human creators.
One can also imagine that the prospect of humanoid AI like Ava, who was trained by no less than Bluebook, populating the world is indeed quite sinister. But we already live among machines that have access to everything there is to know about human life and that are even capable of deriving the personality and lifestyle profiles of individual humans. As is seen in the film, when these machines take on our form, it can plant the seeds for friendship and empathy among human and AI. And as with all knowledge, whether in the hands of a human or otherwise, it can also be taken the wrong way.