Friday, May 26, 2017

In Another Castle: Misplacing Affections in Ex Machina

by Rob DiCristino
“Did we ever get past the chess problem?”

“They thought engines were a map of what people were thinking,” Nathan tells Caleb while the pair stand in his workshop, examining the globular AI brain he’s invented. “But actually, they were making a map of how people were thinking.” This distinction separates the young tech CEO (Oscar Issac) from those competitors and illustrates the immense power of his creation to the dumbfounded employee (Domhnall Gleeson) he’s selected to examine it. And examine it, he has. Caleb’s brief interactions with Ava (Alicia Vikander) have convinced him that, though undeniably artificial, this woman is an extraordinary technological leap forward. Using the aforementioned search engine as her databank, she can read, understand, interpret, and imitate the vast spectrum of human facial ticks, social cues, and speech patterns. She knows irony and sarcasm. She can demonstrate empathy when provoked. But does she feel it? Are Ava’s actions born of genuine emotional expression, or is she simply a computer executing a command? Is there a difference?
More than anything else, Alex Garland’s remarkable Ex Machina demonstrates the fragile line between the artificial and the genuine, the often-indecipherable nuances that separate our realities from those of the people with whom we interact. It asks us to consider how many of our daily exchanges are motivated by an altruistic desire for connection and how many are simply the necessary function of a complex system trying to perpetuate its own existence. Put simply, “What imperative does a grey box have to interact with another grey box?” When Caleb asks why Nathan programmed Ava with sexuality, Nathan argues that an inherent attraction to Caleb (as the only human male she’s met aside from himself) would be a necessary indicator of sentience and character, as well as tool for her to manipulate in her own quest for self-actualization. But then there’s the chess problem — does a machine programmed to play chess know it’s playing chess, or even what chess is? Does Ava actually experience sexual desire and emotional dependence, or does she simply understand their expression as a means to an end?

Though Ava is initially presented as the subject of this so-called Turing Test (Caleb points out that it’s actually more of a variant on the AI-box experiment), the film soon reveals that it’s Caleb himself who is the real subject upon whom Ava and Nathan are experimenting. This is what gives Ex Machina its extra layer of resonance — and, predictably, its third act: can a chess-playing computer that knows what chess is recognize that same knowledge (or lack thereof) in another system? Can Caleb determine whether or not Ava’s feelings for him are real or for show? Nathan eventually reveals that Ava is “a mouse in a mousetrap” and that convincing Caleb she loves him and enlisting his help in her escape is the true test of her sophistication (a mastery of social dynamics bordering on sentience). Looking at the Ava Sessions with the robot as the conductor and the human as the subject makes this clearer: Ava asks Caleb about his parents, his love interests, his favorite color, and his first memories of life. She’s trying to figure out what makes him tick, what makes him vulnerable. She’s gathering data.
We see this in Nathan, as well. His DudeBro personality is almost entirely designed to make Caleb comfortable and distract him from the insidiousness of the larger plan. He tests Caleb’s sympathies by playing the vulnerable drunkard and feigning admiration for his talents. At several key points, he lets him think he’s winning: “You have the light on you. Not lucky — chosen.” And it’s true, Caleb was chosen for his personality, his sensitivity, maybe even his ego. But certainly not for his programming skills or his intellect. Nathan didn't need a skilled coder who could help him suss out which routines should be introduced for the next model or how to streamline his hardware for better efficiency. He needed someone who was lonely and insecure enough not to be noticed, someone with no family to miss him or girlfriend to distract him from Ava. He wanted a good soul with naive ideals, someone whose righteous indignation would make him do something truly stupid. He wanted someone who would see Ava as an individual. He wanted someone who would fall in love with her.

“Will you stay here?” Ava asks Caleb once she’s stabbed Nathan and broken free of her basement prison. Here in this room, she means. She’ll just be a minute. Caleb, willing to do anything to ensure Ava’s safety, plays along. He thinks she needs him. He thinks they’re running away together. Why wouldn’t he? He’s done everything he was supposed to do — outsmarted Nathan, hacked the computers, opened the doors. He expertly manipulated Nathan’s weaknesses and demonstrated that while his intellect might not match that of his boss, his powers of empathy won him the day and the girl. It was wrong of Nathan to be so cruel to Ava, Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), and the prototypes that came before. Only a complete sociopath would treat these delicate creatures with such disrespect. How could someone trying to program humanity into a robot not possess it himself? Caleb wonders that for a long time. He wonders it while watching Ava pull on her new skin and see herself as a real girl for the first time. He wonders it while she walks back down the hall in his direction. He wonders it one last time, as she turns past him without a look, locking him in the facility and riding the elevator to freedom.
Because Ava was never his damsel. He was never her knight. There was no castle. She simply understood the challenge presented to her and applied the data she’d gathered to solve it. While Ex Machina doesn’t explicitly say whether or not Ava actually felt anything for Caleb, it proves she knew how to play chess and why she was playing it. It proves she could provoke enough of an emotional response to get Caleb to compromise his intellect. Most of all, it proves how many of our interpersonal connections are simply applications and projections of dreams and insecurities. Ava was Caleb’s princess because Caleb needed a princess — his consciousness was a complex system executing a necessary command. So which of them is the grey box, and which command is more organic? Did Nathan truly lack humanity, or was he simply wise enough not to place his affections in the hands of a being unable (or unwilling, given Ava’s comments) to reciprocate? Ex Machina offers no clear answers. It simply asks us, like Caleb, to cut ourselves open and see what makes us tick.

9 comments:

  1. Great write up! I fucking love that movie, easily my favorite film of 2014. Went with my wife to see it the same weekend that Avengers 2 was opening and sadly we were only 2 of 4 people in the theater. Such a shame as that movie blew me away.

    As a tangent to the chess match you discussed here, there have also been some great articles about Ex Machina, feminism, and the "White Knight/Nice Guy" phenomenon that you touched on here as well. I can't find the exact article but it reexamines the movie with Ava as the protagonist and with Caleb and Nathan as antagonists (like good cop/bad cop). It made some great points as throughout the movie I was sympathizing with Caleb and was dismayed when he is locked away and left. The article made the point that from Ava's perspective it was the only choice as Caleb would continue try to coddle and protect her and continuing her imprisonment, in a more figurative way, since he would be able to out her as being an AI if she tried to rebel against him.

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    1. Oh for sure - all Caleb was offering was another kind of imprisonment - I mean, as "nice" of a guy as Caleb seemed to be, it's hard not to see her becoming his ultimate male fantasy of having all the real qualities of a lover and companion while being a literal object. Especially once the initial shine of falling in love wore off. I mean, c'mon fellas, who wouldn't want to just switch off their wife every once in awhile, amIright? :P

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  2. Really great essay, Rob. Articulates a lot of what I love about this movie.

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  3. It's very off brand for me to say anything nice to Rob, but this was a great read.

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  4. It's such a fascinating film you can see it so many different ways. My first time with it I saw Caleb as the protagonist (like most everybody at first), but the second time I saw it through Nathan. I realized that if Ava is not a person and just a machine, then Nathan is right about everything and not the bad guy. But then, one could also debate "what makes someone human" and even see Ava as being in the right. It's so interesting. Always good to read your stuff Rob!

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  5. I want to take Rob's film class.

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    1. It's mostly FAST AND FURIOUS clips and rants about Joseph Campbell, but thanks!

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  6. Arhhh...another movie I haven't seen yet. I've been sleeping on it, saving it for a special movie night.

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    1. Great movie, and great write up Rob. I'm still digesting it, as the movie just ended.

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