Software in context


Not Human. Ex-Machina.

15th May 2015

I don't typically write about films, but I haven't enjoyed a sci-fi flick this much since Sunshine, which stranded my imagination in deep space in 2007. After the first viewing of Ex Machina I felt both intellectually satiated and emotionally manipulated. Much to my delight, I discovered that Alex Garland was the one mind behind both films. A second viewing would be required. This time I brought along five computer scientists from OpenX, all software architect-types. After the second go, here's my take.

The story takes place in the high-tech wilderness retreat of a search engine CEO named Nathan. Caleb, a bright young programmer with few earthly ties, has apparently won a company-wide contest that sends him to his boss' estate. Nathan quickly reveals that he has created an AI, and that Caleb is to act as the human component in a Turing test—a way to determine if the machine's intelligence is indistinguishable from a human's. The plot evolves around seven test sessions between Caleb and Ava, the AI. No spoilers yet…

Juvet Landskapshotell, Valldal, Norway Ex Machina was partially filmed at the Juvet Landskapshotell in Valldal, Norway.

The film does well by laying the technical groundwork for Ava's inception without overbaking any of the details. Her mind is based on search engine software, and her facial expressions are trained from a large amount of video footage. Aside from Nathan having hacked every cellphone camera, these premises are a completely credible foundation for strong artificial intelligence. One side-effect of the Internet has been the advent of "big data"—we're learning that programs leveraging large amounts of information can approximate reality better than those that simply attempt to model it. Have you heard of Watson? He works by processing large amounts of unstructured information on Hadoop clusters.

But Ava is more than an Internet-powered robot. Nathan explains that the true value of his search engine—called Blue Book, after Wittgenstein's notes on logic—wasn't in what people were searching for, but rather in how they were doing it; Blue Book is a collective archive of human thought in all of its chaotically patterned glory. A program based on these fluid patterns might well begin to act like a human mind. And what better hardware to house such a program than an amorphous network of "structured gel"? This kind of brain, which Nathan calls wetware, has a strong grounding in modern computer science. Decades of research in machine learning have shown us that some of the most intelligent programs we can write are based on biological neural networks—giant webs of conductive nodes that learn to associate certain inputs with distinct outputs over time. Noticing a trend here? Ava's intelligence is enabled by programs that approximate human biology.

This brings us to the film's actual themes, and the subject of Ava's humanity. We're fed a steady diet of philosophical dialogue between Nathan and Caleb. What is intelligence? How can it be measured? Is Ava passing the test? Meanwhile, the most obvious character development comes via Caleb and Ava's nearly symmetrical dance around the Turing test. In Session 1, Caleb asks circumspect questions to a haltingly inquisitive android—one who seems "not to compute" when asked about the units of her age—"I'm one!". By Sessions 3, Ava's wearing a dress and making Caleb blush. By Session 6, not only is Ava running the interview, but she's asking existential questions that force Caleb to doubt his own humanity. Forget about how intelligent she is! Ava's obviously passed the Turing test. On to the real question: how human is she?

While the seventh and final session may not directly answer the question, it certainly completes the Turing test dance. Caleb, much to his chagrin, is now physically locked in (the late) Nathan's quarters. And Ava, as if to convince that she's one of us, admires her naked self in human skin for a while.

The grandfather of bad robot stories, Asimov's I Robot series, shows that even when an AI is truly bound by immutable laws, its behavior is unpredictable. Ex Machina packs a more sophisticated argument, suggesting that the moment an AI is intellectually indistinguishable from a human, it is at least human. It will love, dream, manipulate, hate, and murder. It will then proceed to people-watch in a traffic intersection. This being is worse than unpredictable. It is neither human nor machine. It is precisely ex-machina.

Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm.

A nuanced take on the ambiguous nature of artificial intelligence is commendable, but the message alone is not what elevated this film for me. Like so many appreciable works of art, the delivery medium ends up being at least as profound as the thought itself. With Ex Machina, the vehicle is Ava's last-moment betrayal of Caleb. This seemingly gratuitous twist does more than carry an implicit warning about the dangers of creating things we don't understand.

The effect certainly appears to be intentional. Everything from Oscar Isaac's off-putting stare to Domhnall Gleeson's sheepish nerdiness work toward a linear and predictable characterization. Some moments between Alicia Vikander and Gleeson are downright tender. And although there's never any solid evidence that Nathan is in fact a malicious robot-womanizer (as some reviews claim), or that Ava is an innocent prisoner, the film leads us to believe that Caleb is supposed to rescue her; we cheer upon hearing that he’s a step ahead of Nathan in re-writing the lockdown procedure. Ava and her predecessor Kyoko team up to take out Nathan. The music climaxes! Then the irony just kind of… slips in. By simply letting a door shut behind her, Ava changes everything. And we’re not really given much time to process it or change our minds about anyone. No further character development. The music remains impartial. Ava walks free.

Turns out Nathan was right all along. Just a well-meaning, logical, visionary with great deadpan humor.

If you’re in shock as you leave the theater, what’s just happened is that a great film has deployed irony to pit your emotional and logical selves against each other. We were enchanted by a great story, and then forced to think about how we were so gullible. Like Caleb standing in front of the Jackson Pollock painting, we gaze confusedly at all this dangerous and beautiful AI stuff thinking "engage intellect!". Thus Ex Machina's strength is not solely in its ability to warn us that we’re playing with fire. That work can be left to Elon Musk. The warning may be more impactful to programmers like myself who are paid to work with futuristic ideas. To whatever end, the film literally makes you think. And thinking is probably wise if humanity is about to birth consciousness, and log an entry in the history of gods.

Caleb Sotelo

Caleb Sotelo

I'm a Software Engineer and Director of OpenX Labs. I try to write about software in a way that helps people truly understand it. Follow me @calebds.

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