Of Machines and Men

How do you know a human wrote this? I did, of course. But what if there were a chance that I was not a 24-year-old female but a sophisticated algorithm that drew from IMDB and reactions on Twitter to quickly generate a movie review on opening night. (We’re not there yet, but news organizations are increasingly using “robo-journalists” to produce less complex stories, from sports results to financial reports.)

In that case you might look for evidence of abstract reasoning; a creative turn of phrase; a well-placed pun; empathy on the part of the author. You would, in a way, perform the Turing Test.

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This is precisely the task set before Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson) in the new science-fiction thriller “Ex Machina” from the writer/director Alex Garland. The talented young computer coder for the Google-esque Internet behemoth Blue Book is selected to spend a week at the country-sized estate of the company’s reclusive chief executive officer, Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac with an impossibly Silicon Valley combination of megalomania and start-up bro chill. There we meet Ava, a super-advanced robot, which, when fully dressed, is nearly indistinguishable from a human, and an extremely beautiful one at that (Alicia Vikander). The question is whether the same can be said of her mind—whether she possesses true artificial intelligence.   

“If you’ve created a conscious machine, that’s not the history of man,” Caleb tells his host. “That’s the history of gods.”

We have all heard about the threats that advanced A.I. could pose to humanity. The tech billionaire Elon Musk, perhaps the closest we have to a real-life Nathan, has described A.I. as “potentially more dangerous than nukes.” Last December Stephen Hawking warned that the age of the robot gone wrong could spell greater inequality, mass unemployment and “the end of the human race.” But “Ex Machina” is less concerned with a man-versus-machine doomsday scenario than with what we are doing to ourselves in the process of this Promethean act of creation.

Playing God has taken its toll on Nathan. Outside the lab, he spends his time getting drunk and taking advantage of his sole companion, a silent Japanese servant. “Isn’t it strange,” Ava asks him, “to create something that hates you?” The closer Nathan comes to reaching his goal, the more tenuous and morally ambiguous his control over his creation becomes, raising the question: Is the possession of a highly intelligent machine analogous to owning a very smart phone, a well-trained pet—or a slave?

Likewise, the deeper Caleb gets into his assignment, the less sure he becomes of his own humanity. Ava draws for him, jokes with him, flirts with him. He knows he is being manipulated, but by whom? As he grows more convinced of Ava’s ability to think and feel—and his feelings for her take a very human turn—he goes so far as to cut open his arm to make sure he is not in fact the one being tested. In a world where relationships are increasingly mediated through screens and machines, where our virtual persona can be altered beyond recognition, we too risk losing touch with that which is most human in ourselves.   

Finally, there are the unseen, unheard characters that are nonetheless integral to the film’s entire enterprise: the public. The troves of data generated through Blue Book provide the raw material for Ava’s “brain,” each query entered into the search engine revealing another aspect of human thought.

This is hardly science fiction. Last year Google acquired DeepMind, a cutting-edge artificial intelligence company. Most Internet users have come to terms with the fact that unfettered access to all the information the world has to offer comes at the cost of our privacy and control over personal data. But targeted ads are one thing; being implicated in the creation of an A.I., with no real say over the final outcome, is quite another.

Estimates as to when scientists will be able to reach true artificial intelligence range from five years to a couple of thousand. In the meantime, “Ex Machina” has raised critical questions about the morality of this endeavor that should be explored not only by the gods of A.I., but also by us mortals, whose online lives and relationships will make up the building blocks of the new Eve. Whatever good or destruction comes from the creation of ever-smarter machines, we have only ourselves to thank. Ava may pass as a human. But she cannot be judged as one.

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Roberto Blum
3 years 2 months ago
"Ava may pass as a human. But she cannot be judged as one." Why not? Is it biology (wetware) which defines a human? Or is it the interaction between a highly complex information processing device and a movable machine which is capable of modifying its environment? Advances in technology are putting to the test our most cherished conceptions of what being human means. The development of AI will radically change our established world view. We will have to deal with a momentous change in our world standing. We will not be able anymore to claim we are so special that God itself was incarnated on Earth to redeem us. Our theology will have to find new answers to these new questions.

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