On "Ex Machina" - Gender, Intelligence, Morality and a Tale of Two Tests...

"I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel."
-- Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

"I propose to consider the question, 'Can machines think?'"

-- Alan Turing, Computing Machinery and Intelligence, 1950

It is said that our ability to create tools is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Although physically far more fragile than its predators, humankind has survived for millennia on the strength of its brain-power, its so-called intelligence. In fact, we call ourselves Homo Sapiens, "the wise man" - proudly wearing our ability to harness thoughts like a badge of honor. "Intelligence" is easily definable as a term, readily recognizable as an intrinsic in our make-up as a living organism,  but to-date, it defies any attempt to be completely realizable as a product. It remains highly elusive as a vital, tangible component of what makes us humans. The question is not merely technological, but spans the social and theological domains too - the ability to create intelligence in an observable form - as Life - is said to be solely the domain of an imaginary super-being. To create intelligence, or more specifically, to create a product that demonstrates intelligence, then, would be a natural elevation of humans to the stature of a "super-being," especially in the eyes of the said intelligence.

Literature, written or otherwise, is filled with stories, myths, legends, handed down for generations that explore variations on this idea in multiple forms. The Jewish legend of the Golem, or the Hindu myth of the deity Ganesha, the aboriginal myths of the Earth-maker, the Egyptian version of Heliopolis, the Inca version of Viracocha to name a few; are myths handed down from the earliest days of respective civilizations to us. These myths found their expression in appropriate contemporary expression as folklore, stories, literature, plays or movies. From Mary Shelley, to J. R. R. Tolkien, to Ridley Scott, to Stanley Kubrick, Issac Assimov, Harlan Ellison, Steven Spielberg or David Brin - the idea of a humanoid automaton has been explored ad infinitum, if not ad nauseam. The fact that every new robot story, film, novel, or similar artwork is received with the same enthusiasm as the ones before it, is a telling testament of our journey to understand and replicate our humanity through artificial means.

The pursuit of artificial life has not been restricted to the realm of fantasy and entertainment only. The academia has contributed immensely to the progress of scientific efforts in this direction. Twentieth century saw the birth of a new type of scientific field - Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), devoted to the creation of computational machinery that is as close as we can build to a human intelligence. Alan Turing formulated his famous test in 1950, as a means of evaluating the fidelity of such simulacra. The test relies heavily on an unbiased observer's ability to detect the presence (or absence) of human-like behavior from an undisclosed source of interaction. The Turing Test is often seen as the holy grail of A.I., the creation of an artificial life form that can imitate human behavior.

This question lies at the centre of "Ex Machina" the 2015 science fiction film written and directed by Alex Garland with a superb cast - Oscar Issac, Alicia Vikander, Domnhall Gleeson and the severely underrated Sonoya Mizuno. Gleeson plays Caleb Smith, a programmer employed by a tech-giant that is run by a reclusive, genius, billionaire Nathan Bateman (Oscar Issac). The movie begins with Caleb receiving the news that he has won a company-wide lottery - the prize being a week of personal time with Nathan in his remote home (shot in a stunning locale in Norway.) Upon his arrival, Nathan unveils the true intention of the trip - Ava (Alicia Vikander, in a sterling turn) - a humanoid robot that Nathan has created in his isolation. Caleb is the observer in this version of the Turing Test, with the key difference being that instead of assuming that the computer is an obscure, nameless, faceless entity, Caleb walks into the test fully aware that he is facing a simulacra that is trying to pass off as human; with the robot Ava, also self aware of her identity as not-human. This twist on the original test opens up a spectra of interaction possibilities since the two participants must now also work towards overcoming their mutual awareness for the A.I. to pass off as a human. 

The narrative is driven forward through the interactions between these protagonists, punctuated by the silent presence of Kyoko (Sonayo Mizuno), Nathan's personal attendant, who takes care of all his needs, euphemism intended. To say anything more about the narrative would be to spoil the plot - this is a movie that is best understood through its carefully built visuals and strong performances by all the cast members. However, I can speak of some general issues that the movie touches upon, without (hopefully) revealing key plot points.

The Turing Test is the main force that drives the narrative, and the remarkable characteristic of this film is that it unknowingly, yet deliberately, makes the viewer a participant in this process too. It raises a few fundamental questions that should be addressed more widely than in the context of this film -- How can we trust a simulacra whose primary goal is built on the foundation of duplicity? If a self-aware machine can learn the benefits of emotional manipulation to serve its purpose, would it be able to understand, or process, morality? How would an A.I. that simulated human identify itself? How could such an entity distinguish between deceitful behavior and an imitation of the same? As Nathan remarks at one point - How can we tell if the A.I. is modeling its behavior as a genuine attempt at engagement, or as a computed estimate of what it thinks we would like it to do? The first is an unconscious choice, a reflex action based on instinct and bonding, the latter is a calculated effort designed to maximize the A.I.'s ability to blend in. The higher question that the narrative opens up for discussion, I think, is if in our pursuit of creating a machine with the ability to duplicate or imitate human behavior, are we subconsciously encouraging duplicity and deceit as the defining traits of humanity. Which machine would we consider our greatest accomplishment - the one that can exhibit genuine human-like emotions, or one that exhibits a certain behavior with the understanding that it will be perceived as a human emotion?

However, the film is far from perfect. For one, it falls into familiar gender trappings that seem to belong in the past century. Nathan is depicted as a once-in-a-generation genius, and somehow this gives him a free pass for some misogynistic behavior - another reviewer called his character "a frat boy who refuses to grow up." And although the most important character in the story is a robot, we are constantly reminded of "her" gender, and it is painfully obvious that under all the CGI, the robot is actually "naked" - vulnerable, primal, sexualized to the point of using her arbitrarily assigned gender as a means to achieve the end result. Ava and Kyoko's interactions are largely limited to the last section of the film, and we never actually hear any of the words they speak with each other - so we may never know if the movie passes a second (equally important) test - the Bechdel Test! It is quite surprising to hear someone like Nathan assert that all intelligence necessarily belongs to a particular gender - for the simple need to propagate and ensure its survival. The script is a bit heavy-handed in dishing out its philosophical angle, and at times, it feels like it would have made an even better mini-series than being forcefully compressed into one movie.

On the technical side, the movie is gorgeously shot - and the visual juxtaposition of the remote locale and the claustrophobic interiors adds to the moody ambience. Garland's use of glass separators and reflections mimics the virtual and physical separation (and eventual convergence) of the humans and the A.I. Alicia Vikander plays the A.I. robot with subtle nuances of expressions, movement, and gestures that successfully straddle the ambiguous line between robotic imitation and childlike learning. The music is appropriate for the environment - jarring, minimalistic, at times disorienting. The lighting and the costume design is fabulous as well. Overall, the movie is very thoughtful exploration of the issues we discussed above.

"Ex Machina" is a clever play on a phrase that omits the most important part - "Deus" or god. It tries to explore the relationship between a sentient creature and its creator - much like Frankenstein - but with a more immediate, topical treatment. It is certainly one of the smarter science fiction movies to come out in recent years that opens avenues to a more thoughtful appreciation and evaluation of the terms 'artificial' and 'intelligence,' taken individually and together.

Highly recommended!