Ex Machina: No ‘Deus’

In most modern stories about Artificial Intelligence (AI) they have some form of “the three laws of robotics”. These three rules govern a robots behavior. The rules, as described by Isaac Asimov in his book, “I Robot“, are as follows:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

In his novella, Asimov describes a couple of short stories where robots encounter problems while trying to obey the three rules of robotics. Although I didn’t really enjoy his writing, the short stories posed a couple of unique predicaments. The predicaments he outlines in his books are fun little puzzles for the readers to solve. So what happens when you don’t program the three laws? This is where we pick up with the new film “Ex Machina”. Before I get started with my review check it out in theaters. 

If the name didn’t clue you in, the trailer should give you a good idea for what might be in store. Ex Machina is Greek for, “The Machine”. We think of “ex machina” in the context of “Deus ex machina”. Deus ex machina is a plot device that I hate and have written about in the past. Much to my surprise and delight, there was no such Deus Ex Machina in this film.

The film addresses concepts that should be familiar to anyone with a computing background. The discussion of the “Turing test” and finite state machines brought back some happy memories. Okay, in the case of finite state machines; maybe not such happy memories.

The film does a fantastic job of exploring the moral and ethical implications involved in creating AI. On more than one occasion Ava asked a question that made me uncomfortable. Her dialogue seems to play a kind of semantics that I’m just not used to. Also her ability to judge micro expressions was brilliant. The idea that she could tell if you were lying by reading your micro expressions was really clever.

Alex Garland wrote and directed the film. There were shots that reminded me of his other film, “28 Days Later”. I enjoyed 28 Days Later; I thought it was a unique take on an old idea. When watching you’ll notice the similarities, specifically when they shoot the scenery. I’m not sure where they shot the film, but the scenery was gorgeous. The shots of the foggy mountains were picturesque and the waterfalls were beautiful.

The entire film you wrestle with one problem which the characters attempt to address. Can Ava “exhibit behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human?” This is the essential question posed by the Turing test. Without spoiling too much of the film the critical question that Nathan asks is, “does she like you?” Or more to the point, is she capable of manipulating Caleb for selfish reasons? Would her manipulation of Caleb be a successful Turing test?

Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac was brilliant. He was edgy and volatile but not over the top. From the moment we meet Nathan something just doesn’t seem right. He’s blunt and a bit abrasive. He’s quick and intelligent but he’s flawed. This lays the foundation for the conflict that Caleb experiences. If for example Nathan was more trustworthy I would be more inclined to believe him. The repartee between him and Caleb is high quality. Take this little exchange for example:

Caleb: Did you program her to flirt with me?

Nathan: If I did, would that be cheating?

Caleb: Wouldn’t it?

Nathan: Caleb, what’s your type?

Caleb: Of girl?

Nathan: No, of salad dressing. Yeah, of girl; what’s your type of girl? You know what, don’t even answer that. Let’s say its black chicks. Okay, that’s your thing. For the sake of argument, that’s your thing, okay? Why is that your thing? Because you did a detailed analysis of all racial types and you cross-referenced that analysis with a points-based system? No! You’re just attracted to black chicks. A consequence of accumulated external stimuli that you probably didn’t even register as they registered with you

Caleb: Did you program her to like me, or not?

Nathan: I programmed her to be heterosexual, just like you were programmed to be heterosexual

Caleb: Nobody programmed me to be straight

Nathan: You decided to be straight? Please! Of course you were programmed, by nature or nurture or both and to be honest Caleb you’re starting to annoy me now because this is your insecurity talking, this is not your intellect.

Ava, played by Alicia Vikander was great. I’m not sure how they made her into a robot but it was completely believable. That said, there was an uncanny valley which was a bit off putting. Especially with Nathan’s assistant, Kyoko. I knew something was up with her when she first appeared on the screen.

The film is a thrilling and wild ride. When there are no rules, chaos ensues.

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