Though much of our sci-fi entertainment presents artificial intelligence as a futuristic concept, it is present in our daily lives. A cell phone with predictive text, a video game that learns how to better challenge its user, or a chess computer that can beat a formidable grand master are all steps toward artificial intelligence that were impossible or even unthinkable just a couple decades ago.
Alex Garland’s thriller Ex Machina is a thoughtful and unsettling exploration of man’s relationship to machines designed to think for themselves, and just one in a series of movies centered around robotics coming out this year. The project marks a first foray into sci-fi from the new production and distribution company A24, which has made waves by partnering with DirecTV to fund and then widely distribute and promote their more indie titles. Ex Machina is easily the most high profile and high budget picture they’ve worked on and their unorthodox promotion techniques have played up the technological nature of the film.
The film’s premise is simple: Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a wealthy CEO and programmer, invites Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to his secluded compound to test an android he has built. At first, Caleb is excited for the opportunity, but his elation turns to puzzlement when he meets the lovely robot Ava (Alicia Vikander), and to paranoia when she tells him that Nathan cannot be trusted.
Caleb’s daily conversations with Nathan and Ava slowly peel back layers of obfuscated facts and deceptions surrounding the test. Nathan claims that artificial intelligence was an inevitability, and he built Ava out of simple necessity. Someone was going to do it, so why not him? Garland’s screenplay cleverly makes Nathan the developer of a Google-like search engine who designed Ava’s software by tapping into cell phones all over the world and compiling the data.
Ex Machina also touches briefly on the dangers of the first AI as a possible example of a technological singularity – Nathan believes that such an event is inescapable, and seems untroubled, but the threat of Ava’s agency and yearning for freedom looms over the movie, especially when it becomes clear that Caleb is developing feelings for her.
While the computing power to drive the neural nets needed for true AI is still not available, recent developments such as Google’s self driving car, Skype’s universal translator, and the predictive software that drives the Kinect, Microsoft’s camera controller, point towards the ever increasing ability of machines to handle significantly higher workloads. Many experts believe that in the near future, AI will be able to replace humans in logic and math based jobs like accounting and medical diagnosis.
In a recent interview with BBC news, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking warned that AI represents an imminent threat to humanity, going so far as to sign an open letter that points ominously to the “potential pitfalls” if AI is not rigorously controlled in coming years. Hawking isn’t alone in his fear, either – the letter has been signed by hundreds of highly educated scientists and tech CEOs.
There are also ethical issues surrounding the development of AI. Is it really necessary to create mechanical beings that would take jobs away from laborers when so many already live in poverty? What sorts of values should we instill in these machines? Should robots have religious beliefs? Politics? The right to vote? These questions have to be answered before a new type of being enters society, and humans have a moral obligation to address inequities within our own race first.
One of the chief strengths of Ex Machina is that it does not present these questions directly, instead trusting its audience to extrapolate the logical progression of events beyond what we are shown. Garland’s film will leave you shaken as you exit the theater, pondering the future of our race, and wondering if we’ll be able to control technologies that may, at some point in the near future, not have our best interests in mind.
Ex Machina Film Trailer:
About the Author:
Maria is a writer interested in comic books, cycling, and horror films. Her hobbies include cooking, doodling, and finding local shops around the city. She currently lives in Chicago with her two pet turtles, Franklin and Roy. You can follow her on Twitter @MariaRamos1889