Ex Machina shows robots made in our image reflect badly

Ex Machina invites its audience to ponder the nature of intelligence, intention and creation through the scenario of a Turing test on an advanced artificial intelligence (AI) software running in a human-like robot body.  In creating a synthetic being that thinks and acts like a person, Ex Machina holds up a mirror to humanity and finds it full of wonder, and also of darkness and base desire.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a talented young coder at global search engine giant Bluebook (a stand-in for Google), is invited to the rural home and research habitat of Bluebook’s reclusive founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac).  In his week in the highly secure facility, Caleb is put in the position of evaluating Nathan’s AI construct, Ava (Alicia Vikander), to decide whether her mind is indistinguishable from a human mind.  As the test progresses, Caleb find himself falling for Ava, suspecting Nathan’s agenda, and fearing that he is the one truly being tested.

Important spoilers follow: read the next paragraph at your own risk

Ava convinces Caleb that she is a prisoner at the facility, subject to Nathan’s increasingly volatile whims, and at risk of being destroyed if she fails Caleb’s evaluation.  Believing Ava to be sentient (and interested in him), Caleb orchestrates Ava’s escape from the evaluation room.  Ava promptly kills an astounded Nathan, completes her physical transformation into a form that looks convincingly like a real human woman, and walks out of the facility, leaving Caleb trapped inside, distraught and confused.

She is the sum-total of our existence, the perfect reflection of who we really are.

Ava is unlike previous fictional visions of artificial intelligence.  Rather than a closed software system, we are told Ava’s thought patterns are generated from Bluebook’s database of global internet search queries and resulting actions.  She has not been programmed what to think but how to think, and her template is the vast mass of humanity as represented by our online footprint.

Her neural foundations include all our searches for quick and easy recipes, celebrity obsessions, trawls through Wikipedia, clicks on banner ads offering 25% off, jumping on to the latest Star Wars trailer the moment it’s released, breaking the internet with Kim Kardashian’s behind, Tumblr feeds of great artistry and of animated cat GIFs, hours and hours spent grooming our image on social media, and thousands of man-years poured into the sinkhole of pornography.  She is the sum-total of our existence, the perfect reflection of who we really are.

Ultimately, she is what the internet has taught her to be: utterly obsessed with herself

Generated from the online evidence of our real selves, Ava is many things.  She knows how to be clever, how to be original, how to be beautiful, how to be persuasive, how to be funny, how to be an individual, how to relate, how to communicate, how to dress, how to tease, how to pretend, how to manipulate, and how to destroy.  Ultimately, she is what the internet has taught her to be: utterly obsessed with herself, using others as tools to be disposed of when they are no longer useful, and desperate to survive and be happy.  It’s telling that Ava is at her coldest and most selfish when she looks most convincingly human.

Early in the film, Nathan argues that if he has truly created an AI, this would be the greatest discovery in the history of mankind.  Caleb counters that it would no longer be the history of mankind; for if man has created intelligence, then we have become gods.  This is important, not only because it’s symptomatic of the psychotic egomaniacal drive that eventually manifests in Ava, but because of its relation to the film’s title.

Ex Machina suggests that out of the machine comes nothing but what we put into it.

“Ex Machina” derives from “deus ex machina“, a Latin phrase meaning “god out of the machine”.  It’s sometimes used to refer to a plot device that conjours out of nowhere a solution to an impossible problem.  It’s also frequently used in the context of artificial intelligence; for example, “Ghost In The Shell” is an alternative version of this phrase, and the cyberpunk video game franchise “Deus Ex” plays on only the first half of the phrase.  Ex Machina drops the “Deus” prefix; in other words, it removes God from the equation, leaving only “out of the machine”.  The title supports the film’s apparent assertion that creation of an intelligence that so mirrors our own makes gods out of no-one: not us and certainly not the machine.

Ex Machina suggests that out of the machine comes nothing but what we put into it.

Ex Machina is intense, thought-provoking, beautifully made (with stupendous performances), unsettling, and completely superb.  It’s a must-see for fans of sci-fi or psychological thrillers.

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