Ex Machina – “from the machine” – is a British film that is more about philosophy and morality than science. It opens a can or worms, philosophically, that underscores issues now being raised by advancing and increasingly intelligent technology. Its spare but crisp production reminds me of George Lucas’s first film, THX-1138.
Spoiler alert, by the way…
It is, in its essence, a modern exploration of the themes presented in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, using artificial intelligence as the fulcrum, rather than the reanimating of dead tissue.
The film poses questions that are current in all AI research, but are also important on the larger ethical scale about how we treat intelligence outside our own, robots in this case being metaphors for companion and food animals:
- How do we define sentience?
- How do we recognize sentience in others?
- How do we treat sentience?
- Is there a separate morality and behaviour for our interaction with non-human intelligence?
None of these are answered in the film, although the quest for the answers is part of the plot (which is also part-thriller). And lingering over all of it is the Turing Test: is it real sentience or simply the illusion of it? And how can we tell the difference?
It also suggests the question of what exactly emotions are:
- Can emotions be programmed?
- Are emotions predictable and quantifiable?
- Can a machine experience emotions?
Then there are the questions about gender and sexuality:
- Is gender programmable?
- Does sexuality reside in the intellect or the physical appearance? or both?
- What attracts men and women?
The film also poses the question that is paramount in Frankenstein:
- Is the human creation of an intelligence moral or ethical? Can it ever be?
- What treatment or response does the creation deserve?
And as a sub-theme, the film throws in the morality of slavery and male domination: earlier models of robot appear to be kept as sex slaves by their designer (particularly Kyoko, the assistant and cook, who is revealed to be a robot only half-way through the film – and is perhaps more enigmatic and interesting than Ava, the lead character).
Are these merely sexbots: tools and devices for use, or are they sentient beings? Plus, the main robot, Ava, has evident and expressive sexuality. Is it real/authentic (i.e. a native response) or simply programmed? Are the males – who both play a dominant role – sexist or sympathetic in their responses to the female robots?