Human After All: Ex Machina's Novel Take on Artificial Intelligence

Traditionally, culture has interpreted AI as a threat to humanity, but Alex Garland's new movie wonders whether robots can be just like us.

Last month at South by Southwest, while swiping through the dating app Tinder, some festival attendees came across an attractive 25-year-old brunette named Ava. Ava used correct punctuation and referred to people by their first name. She also asked beguiling questions like, “Have you ever been in love?” and “What makes you human?” Ava was later revealed to be a chatbot, devised by a marketing department to promote Alex Garland’s new movie, Ex Machina. The film follows a young programmer, Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson), who wins a competition to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive CEO of a large tech company who asks him to perform a Turing test on Ava, a new humanoid artificial intelligence he’s created.

The SXSW stunt succeeded in fooling a number of people, many of whom eventually caught on to the fact that Ava’s questions felt less like flirting and more like a Turing test turned on them. Still, Tinder Ava captured what Ex Machina is actually about: a machine who can think, feel—and manipulate people—just like a human being. But rather than seeking to simply exploit cultural anxieties about artificial intelligence, the film attempts to steer the conversation in a new direction. It imagines AI as something without catastrophic consequences for humanity, that instead questions our understanding of what it actually means to be human.

The fear of autonomous forms of technology turning against people has historically provoked both fascination and terror, being symptomatic of a deeper anxiety about war, intelligent weaponry, and nuclear annihilation that emerged in the 20th century. As such, fictional representations of AI to date have largely been framed either as cautionary tales or broader commentary on the perceived perils of modern technology. Picture the cold detachment of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey; the mutinous plotting of Ash in Alien; the finely tuned self-preservation instincts of Skynet in the Terminator films; or the chillingly effectual Machines of The Matrix, who turned humanity into one giant battery pack. (One notable exception is Gerty from Moon, who subverted expectations of the evil AI trope beautifully: He really was a nice robot.)

But the growing demystification of artificial intelligence makes these stories feel dated. As technology like Apple’s Siri and self-driving cars ease their way into the cultural landscape, subtler cultural depictions of artificial intelligence are becoming much more intriguing. In making Ex Machina, Garland consulted the British cognitive roboticist Murray Shanahan, who argues that cognition and consciousness should be regarded without the "fog” of philosophical frameworks—namely, that they could be applied to any human or animal with a brain, even a machine. Shanahan began working in artificial intelligence in the 1980s, when the dominant thinking said a machine could be programmed to mimic human intelligence using a set of predetermined conditions. By the mid-1990s however, Shanahan became disillusioned with what is known as classical AI, and turned to neuroscience, studying how computer models of the human brain could be applied to building intelligent machines.

Like Shanahan, Garland questions the need for metaphysical constructs altogether, presenting instead the argument that being human requires nothing more than a working brain. By giving Ava consciousness, Nathan has made her indistinguishable, in essence, from himself. "If Ava can get scared, or think something’s funny, then anything you can choose to say about a person in terms of why we value them, you can also say about Ava,” Garland says. It’s a similar idea to the one explored in 2010’s Never Let Me Go, based on Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel of the same name, for which Garland wrote the screenplay. That story features clones, not robots, but the underlying message is the same: Consciousness denotes humanity.

From this point of view, Ex Machina feels less like a sci-fi thriller and more like a survival story whose exploration of artificial intelligence has more in common with ethical debates about animal rights than it does with plotlines drawn from the works of, say, the legendary science-fiction author Isaac Asimov. The film instead seeks to inspire greater empathy for artificial intelligence. “If you stand with the machine, which is where I stand, then this film becomes about a creature, indistinguishable in any meaningful sense from a human being, who is trapped and wants to get out,” Garland says.

Films like AI: Artificial Intelligence, Bicentennial Man and I, Robot touched on the thought processes of sentient machines, but were very much located in the realm of high-concept science fiction. Considered next to these, Ex Machina plays out more like a human drama—a sensitive exploration of the inner life of its artificially intelligent character. The film plays with the expectation of a paranoid, dystopian vision of AI while successfully exploring the humanity of it in a way that, like Spike Jonze’s Her, resonates much more with our current experience of technology. Jonze’s film was praised, in part, for its normalization of something as seemingly improbable as a human-AI relationship, and its suggestion that an AI could be imbued with the same feelings and desires as a person. As with Ex Machina, critics hailed the film for subverting the tropes of most films about artificial intelligence by refusing to fear it. (Consider this next to Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie, released earlier this year, which attempts something similar but is less articulate in its expression of it.)

Despite being a sci-fi film, Ex Machina’s most notable achievement is that it simply accepts that artificial intelligence has finally moved beyond the realm of science fiction. “Alex's film brings out the philosophical issues surrounding artificial intelligence much more explicitly than anything that has come before,” Shanahan says. “The most important thing about it is that it will get audiences talking about issues that may become extremely important in their lifetime.”