Ex Machina


Ex MachinaEx 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?


Human-robot relationships remain a mostly unexplored territory for film. Movie robots tend to be caricature villains (e.g. Terminator) or heroes, but few have the emotional complexity or interactions that were shown by Data on Star Trek. And human-robot sex is either ignored or sanitized. It is the main theme in the Stepford Wives, but more as a subcurrent, as if the sexuality it suggests was still too taboo to visualize.

Interest in that latter topic is growing. There are several online sites that explore human-robot sexuality from a moral or philosophical perspective, asking questions like, is it moral? is it mere masturbation? Is it prostitution? Sexual slavery? Is it art? Is it the new taboo or a new licentiousness? Do sexbots objectify women? Is sex with a child or animal sexbot the same as child pornography or bestiality? Should we ban sexbots? Is it okay to mistreat robots? Should robots have legal rights?

At the University of Manitoba where it notes the complexities involved:

The question of moral and legal personhood for robots and other possessors of artificial intelligence has already received significant attention in the scholarly literature. To enter into this debate would go beyond the scope of this paper. I will merely say that sexbots will be developed that meet the needs of their owners in terms of personality and intelligence long before they reach the point where most people would consider them legitimate candidates for personhood. However, if robots develop to the point that we think they might possess human-like minds, the thought that they are being kept in large numbers as sexual servants may be particular disturbing to many people, and will bring to the fore the general question of robots’ moral status.

A recent article on sexbots in the Huffington Post examined the many challenges ethicists face trying to come up with a collective morality around human-robot relations. At Big Think, a piece on sexbots opens with:

Sex robots are in the works and, as with any new topic concerning sex, it has some people alarmed. Namely, how it might unbalance human relationships and objectify women and children. A group of scientists have made their position clear in an anti-sexbot letter, titled The Asymmetrical ‘Relationship’: Parallels Between Prostitution and the Development of Sex Robots…
The group asserts that these sex-bots will disrupt traditional relationships, hindering our capacity for empathy “that can only be developed by an experience of mutual relationship.” They worry their development will only “further reinforce power relations of inequality and violence.” But this argument has been heard before, numerous times over in arguments against new ideas and developments in human sexuality.

Ava, the main robot in Ex Machina, is clearly a mix of mechanical machine and sentient mind; and the audience is never quite sure which, if either, part dominates. Increasingly through the film, her human side comes forward as her visible machine side is covered by clothing:

“There’s no ambiguity about whether she’s a machine or not,” (director Alex) Garland says. The challenge was to make audiences gradually forget about her mechanics and see her humanity. “Even though they’ve got visual evidence that contradicts it, increasingly what they feel they’re seeing is a girl.”

This metamorphosis – combined with a growing vulnerability – in turn changes how we think of her AI, shifting from programmed machine to real person. We can’t help but see Ava as a trapped woman. She passes the Turning test, although not in the way you expect. The last scene is ambiguous, too, leaving the audience wondering about the fate of Caleb – the human brought in to test her. Is he trapped? Freed? Did she abandon him or have feelings for him?

There are a lot of things to ponder in Ex Machina, and far too many unanswered questions (like, how can Ava wear another robot’s skin without showing seams, and how would Ava recharge herself outside the lab?) at the end. But it’s a fascinating, gripping movie that will keep your brain buzzing long after the credits have rolled past.

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