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.