“Ex Machina” an unsettling look at the push to create artificial intelligence
Any invitation from an obscenely wealthy individual to spend a week alone in a remote location with only the host should be politely declined, especially if one doesn’t hail from a similar tax bracket.
It has been proven in fiction, time and time again, that the upper classes rarely have the best interest of their plebian counterparts at heart. There is a very good chance that one will be hunted, manipulated, humiliated or experimented on. It may involve ghosts, buried treasure, or ancient rituals, or one might just be forced to bear witness to unfathomable evil, but someone is going to die and it’s probably going to be horrible for them.
Such is the premise, at least in part, of “Ex Machina,” 2015’s first entry into great science fiction. It’s a slow-burning film about artificial intelligence, one that handles the subject matter with more grace and understanding than “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” digging deep for philosophical musings and moral ambiguity. With a minimal cast, the film relies heavily on the character interpretations of its actors, all of whom do an exceptional job in creating an uncomfortable and eerie atmosphere. “Ex Machina” is meant to be an unsettling look at the questions surrounding A.I., asking why this seemingly inevitable technology might be created and what it might mean for its creator.
Mary Shelley first asked these types of questions in 1818 with “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.” In fact, the creator of Ava, the machine in “Ex Machina,” made his fortune by providing the world with Blue Book, a Google equivalent named for the notes kept by Dr. Frankenstein in the classic tale. Oscar Isaac plays Nathan Bateman, a billionaire who created the world’s foremost search engine when he was 13. Caleb Smith, one of his employees, is given the opportunity to spend a week with Bateman after winning a company lottery.
He finds out, much to his fascination, that he has been invited to the ends of the Earth to participate in a Turing test to discover if Bateman’s creation shows true intelligence. There is much attention given to what makes a being intelligent. Playing chess with a computer built for chess doesn’t indicate that the computer is intelligent. Instead, the computer is simply following preprogrammed instructions based on a set of circumstances. True A.I. is capable of making real decisions, based on more than external stimuli. A real Turing test is far more complex than asking an interface a series of questions.
It’s these explanations and discussions of artificial intelligence that makes the film a success. Lesser films of this nature (“Age of Ultron,” for instance) might focus only on the consequences of creating such a being. “Ex Machina” delves into the heart of the matter. If a man creates a truly artificial intelligence, with its own personality and emotions and consciousness, what responsibilities does the creator assume? Is it cruel to continue testing? To improve programming? To wipe memories? Does this new being have inherent rights? At what point is consciousness awoken? What about the previous iterations? Do they not have some measure of it as well?
Humans tend to think of consciousness as a binary position. But the more we study animals, the more we find that consciousness is likely something of a spectrum, rather than a singular achievement. The film does an excellent job arguing both sides, showing the positions of both the creator and the observer. What it doesn’t do, to its credit, is attempt to show the argument from the side of the created. The mind of Ava is inherently unknowable, which in my opinion lends credence to her passing the test of artificial intelligence.
Towards the end of the film, the camera is focused on the floor of an airport. We see shadows moving across the floor, shadows that belong to travelers. We cannot see who is casting these shadows, but we know them to be people based on our own experiences. However, before the screen cuts to black, we see a familiar form cast a shadow of her own. The simple shot, given everything that we’ve seen before, is a reference to Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” We have always known that we can trust our eyes to tell us the truth, but now the shadows cannot be trusted. The audience has been dragged, screaming, into the light. The film is warning us against leaving the comfort of our cave because we cannot understand the true nature of being a God. This is an idea common in science fiction, and yet it is a masterful stroke of filmmaking in an already exceptional film. “Ex Machina” is something worth seeing before the summer descends into blockbuster repetition.