Ex Machina: (S)existence and the Construction of (Human) Being
The latest from Alex Garland of 28 Days Later fame—a film some say re-launched the zombie genre—is Ex Machina, a picture Garland both writes and directs. Garland’s title alludes to Descartes and the notion of human beings as conflicted creatures struggling to reconcile thought and matter, or to be in bodies that also have minds. Ex Machina is a palimpsest of stories, including, among other things, a Turing test, the Knights of the Round Table, the fairytales of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, the Horatio Alger myth, the French myth of Bluebeard, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. While I struggle as a feminist with the implication of the monster being an artificial woman, Garland posits sex in AI for a reason. The procreative push of being a woman will make for a better AI. Pause: go ahead, imagine all those robots doing it like rabbits. To the point, Garland’s choice raises all sorts of questions about sex, gender, and being. At the same time, even though he is recycling stereotypes of woman as nurturing creator and the man as destructive warrior, Garland does so in novel ways. What is left out here, as this is about AI as a finished or nearly finished product, is the question of how we sex and gender it. Structurally, we know the genetic differences in human flesh via DNA, so the structural composition of a gendered AI is but another step. Returning to Frankenstein and Sleeping Beauty, there is something outside of what we know that brings it to life. Garland’s film, though, is not about the building of human consciousness and AI, but rather the result.
So, what drives this picture is the Turing test. Alan Turing (the subject of last year’s celebrated The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum) is a mathematician and engineer who wrote a series of papers on computers and artificial intelligence in the first half of the twentieth-century, and whose 1950 paper described a test in which an examiner asks questions via textual messages only of both a computer and a human being. If the examiner is unable to determine which is the computer and which the human, then the computer is appropriately “intelligent.” Ex Machina’s Nathan (played by a smoldering Oscar Isaac), is a coder and engineer-whiz kid who broke the cell phone market and now lives all by himself who knows where, in a coder-genius fantasy house surrounded by intense security and his own AI creations. Wealthy beyond imagination, Nathan runs the cell phone company that now monopolizes the market, allowing him time to focus on what he really wants to do—make fake women who then serve, have sex with, and adore him. I am oversimplifying here, but suffice it to say that he has created what he believes to be AI that will pass for human. To test his prototype, he brings in a programmer from his company, Caleb (well-played by Domhnall Gleason): a sensitive, smart, and moral young man with a history. Like Caleb, we become part of the examination process, and our task as viewers then is to determine if Ava, an artificially constructed female AI, passes for human. Although making that decision is simple, the subject is complicated, especially in light of the ramifications that follow.
While the narrative engine of the film is the Turing test, what makes Garland’s work so much more captivating and fascinating is the way by which the film also becomes the narrative of each of the three players: Nathan, the interrogator; Caleb, the control and questioner; and Ava, the AI(?) woman(?). Nathan’s story is that of the developer, the conqueror. What does it mean to push the limits and change the world? Nathan is a programmer, and a smart one, yet throughout the film, much of his screen time has him lifting weights or exercising, if not drinking. Intelligence and masculinity seem to be at odds then, and the need for physical strength suggests an evening up in Nathan’s struggle to be a man. He makes robotic, fake, women, too, one of whom does not speak (or barely): Kyoko (captivatingly played by the dancer, performer actor Sonoya Mizuno). At one fascinating point, however, the two of them dance, not as sexual partners, but as human beings who simply need a routine, a structure, and fun. Cue Oliver Cheatham’s “Get Down Saturday Night.” Kyoko’s role in unraveling the narrative threads, regardless of her inability to speak, is critical. Caleb, a young man with morals, not only finds Ava to be human, but also falls in love with her. To understand and accept Ava as human pushes him to challenge his own body, barriers, and being. And finally, Ava…the viewer, like Caleb, must ultimately decide, and in this way, the audience moves that conversation, as I am doing now, out into the ether, the world wide web, and the real world (dare I say, even real time). What is AI? How do we treat AI? What does it mean to be human? How do we treat each other?  We’re going to need some answers, because—as this film makes clear—Ava, or AI, is out there, somewhere, now.
—Brooke A. Carlson
 This is just one of many films asking questions about what it means for humans and AI to share space. For further viewing, I recommend Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Stephen Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl (2007), Duncan Jones’s Moon (2009), Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), Wally Pfister’s Transcendence (2014), and Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie (2015).