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Robots, Free Will & Predestination

Ava, a robot from Ex Machina

The intellectual magazine Foreign Affairs displays a humanoid robot on the cover of its July/August issue, and one of the summer’s most popular movies, Ex Machina, is about a similar robot. The Foreign Affairs robot is posed much like Hamlet glumly contemplating the skull of Yorick. And the female robot advertising Ex Machina looks at us skeptically from the movie advertisements. These humanoid machines are not our cheerful servants.

Star Wars brought us happy, useful robots — the charming barrel-shaped R2-D2, and the humanoid, etiquette-expert C-3PO. But that was then, before we had smart phones and drones that made their own flight plans. Nowadays, people are beginning to wonder if artificial intelligence or building a really, really smart robot is such a good idea.

In Ex Machina, Caleb Smith, a programmer who works for the world’s largest internet search engine, wins a company-wide contest which rewards him with a week as guest at the home of Nathan Bateman, the brilliant and reclusive CEO of the company. When Caleb arrives at Nathan’s isolated ultra-modern dwelling, the owner doesn’t come to the door. Caleb wanders through the big shoebox structure, an interior of glass-walled rooms and no windows to the outside, until he exits onto a terrace where he finds muscular black-bearded Nathan in boxing gloves, pounding a punching bag.

Nathan tells Caleb that he wants him to perform a Turing test on Nathan’s newest creation, a human-like female robot named Ava. Over the next seven days Caleb interacts with Ava and is interrogated by Nathan as to whether Ava’s artificial intelligence and awareness of self are indistinguishable from those qualities in a human.

OK, the setup is silly. Maybe we can accept that Nathan is one of the richest people on the planet, a Mozart of coding who created an entire programming language as a teenager. But, no, we don’t believe that he or anyone can run a successful global corporation from an isolated forest valley located on the far side of a colossal glacier. And, no, we don’t believe that anyone working alone and in total paranoid secrecy could build, piece by piece, a robot sophisticated enough to pass for human.

But forget all that. It’s a science-fiction movie and the important thing is that we now have our Frankenstein in his laboratory. We have our egomaniac scientist Nathan and his humanoid creation Ava and, as the stand-in for ourselves, a decent and intelligent outsider, Caleb. So we suspend our disblief and watch the drama play out.

And it’s worth it. The writer-director Alex Garland has written an excellent script and chosen precisely the right actors to direct. Alicia Vikander, who plays Ava, studied ballet at the Royal Swedish Ballet School, but opted for acting instead of ballet and that earlier training works beautifully in this role. Vikander conveys, by the ever so subtle placement of her head, her torso and limbs, a sense of hidden machinery. At the same time, her face – again by very subtle changes – convinces us that there’s a vulnerable human sensibility at work inside that machine.

Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb comes across as the opposite of his boss; there’s nothing about him that suggests overbearing masculinity or violence. Quite the contrary, he is a vulnerable man with a naivete we might have expected in Ava. Indeed, those two make a good match. You might say they were made for each other in this prison-like Eden, watched over by omniscient Nathan who thinks of himself as God. Oscar Isaac, an actor who fits perfectly with the other two, plays Nathan as a man who controls everything, including his own violence.

As the drama plays out, Caleb begins to see — sometimes more slowly than we in the audience — that Nathan has created Ava as perhaps sentient and maybe endowed with free will, but certainly as constrained as a slave. And the question arises, as it must: if you build a machine that displays all the outward signs of human intelligence and human feeling, is it moral to treat that machine as a machine? How do you distinguish between a machine that mimics human sensibilities and a human?

Of course, in Ex Machina, these are not merely philosophical questions, they’re matters of life and death. During recurring power outages, when — presumably — Nathan’s camera’s and recording devices don’t work, Ava asks Caleb’s help to escape from Nathan’s glass walled prison. And Caleb does respond to her appeal.

The robot C-3PO looked like a streamlined version of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, but Ava is convincingly female, at least in regard to her expressive face and that part of her upper body covered by a sweater-like garment. Furthermore, Nathan assures Caleb that she has a vagina loaded with sensors and if stimulated, she will feel pleasure. Her midsection and parts of her limbs are a maze of gleaming silvery rods and wires, so she is visually an expression of the contradiction between being human and being machine.

Caleb and Ava are separated by an unbreakable wall of clear glass, but as they talk and respond to each other over those seven days we can see Caleb’s emotional involvement deepening. But Caleb, like the rest of us, knows that Ava’s artificial intelligence, her entire sense of self, her stratagems and ways of relating to the world and specifically to this new man, Caleb — all this in Ava was designed and programed by omnipotent Nathan. So, does Ava have free will, or is what she says and does ultimately the result of Nathan’s handiwork?

Ex Machina begins slowly and builds with relentlessly increasing tension as we and Caleb see ever more clearly the truth of the situation — along with certain terrible ambiguities. We can take this drama as an updated version of the goings on in Frankenstein’s laboratory or as a false Eden contrived by an ego driven God, the moral dilemmas and the physical dangers are the same.  Whether the ending is necessary or arbitrary and whether it fits esthetically are questions that viewers will decide for themselves, but certainly this stylish multidimensional movie is something to enjoy and think about.

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.