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The rise of automation, the development of artificial intelligence, and the increasing likelihood that robots who look like us and act like us will become major parts of the next few decades of the 21st century and beyond is not a new phenomenon. Going back to the 1950s and even earlier, human being have predicted through popular media and culture that the future would have advanced intelligent beings who would aid us, support us, and perhaps even dominate us. Recently, the popular culture seems to have gotten more specific and more in-line with the technological developments of today of how artificial intelligence may look not hundreds of years from now but rather mere decades from now.
Television shows like Black Mirror and Westworld approach the rapid growth of technology and the rise of artificial intelligence with unease and even dystopian consequences. However, the main message that these two TV shows can agree on is that these types of scenarios are not a matter of ‘if’ it will happen but ‘when’ it will happen. Now, obviously these shows are science fiction and are not based in truth, but it is becoming more and more difficult to say that it is impossible for the world to look somewhat like a mix of Black Mirror and Westworld by the latter half of the 21st century. While these shows are very black and white by mainly displaying the damage that virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and big brother surveillance can do to our societies, the excellent film Ex Machina deals with shades of gray correctly when dealing with this phenomenon. As some of the television shows that are currently popular deal with the advent of robots and AI with total dismay and unease, Ex Machina is more balanced in its perspective and points to a conclusion that is left to be interpreted by the audience in its repercussions for humankind.
While it didn’t gain much notoriety or was a big hit at the box office, Ex Machina, released in April of 2015 in the United States, garnered critical acclaim, especially for its visuals. The film won for ‘Best Visual Effects’ at the Academy Awards and was also nominated for ‘Best Original Screenplay.’ Alicia Vikander, who plays ‘Ava,’ the humanoid robot that has a high level of artificial intelligence, also was nominated and won a few major awards for ‘Best Supporting Actress.’ The film was directed by English novelist and director Alex Gardner and despite it being a science fiction-based concept only had a film budget of $15 million dollars. In addition to the talented actress Alicia Vikander, other up and coming actors like Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac play the other two leading roles. While they are currently known for their high-budget roles in the new Star Wars series, they really get a chance in this film to shine as actors in a movie that centers on dialogue and emotional expression.
The film’s plot begins rather innocuously with pretty spot on references to our world today. A programmer named Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson) who works at a Google-like worldwide search engine company known as ‘Blue Book’, similar to Facebook in its name, is chosen to meet with the Sergey Brin or Larry Page of this fictional world one-on-one for a week. It’s an office contest that Caleb surprisingly wins and which everyone congratulates him on since this tech CEO is known to be reclusive and does not give interviews. The CEO of ‘Blue Book’ is Nathan Bateman, who lives isolated from humanity in a luxurious mountainous estate that seems to be more of a fortress than a home. Nathan only lives with one other person, Kyoko, who is his personal servant but it is unclear who she is really since she does not speak English.
At first, Caleb is excited to meet his tech idol, especially since his boss has developed the first humanoid robot who has passed a simple Turing test, which is quite the triumph where man cannot tell if he who he is talking to a robot or a human being. This special humanoid robot was built and designed by Nathan, and is kept in a singular room in an apartment-like setting within the fortress for which she is never allowed to leave. Unlike other fictional depictions of humanoid robots, it’s clear from the outside that Ava is a robot and does not have a humanlike appearance, although Nathan has given her a human face that slowly disarms Caleb in terms of his apprehension of speaking to her and asking her questions. It is clear that Ava is extremely advanced in terms of her artificial intelligence and is curious about who she is and about the outside world.
After a little while, Nathan reveals to Caleb that the real reason he brought him here to his isolated complex was to ask Ava questions to see if she is capable of independent human thought and whether she is conscious of them and her actions. Nathan wants to break the barrier to see if his humanoid robot can relate to Caleb on a human level and to express emotions such as sympathy, remorse, happiness, and even romantic feelings. The big surprise about Ava is how much she is able to turn the tables on Caleb and get him to reveal more about himself than he finds out about her. She is able to connect with him very deeply and even plant ideas in his head regarding her suspicions about who Nathan is and what does he really want.
While it starts out as mutual respect and fascination for Nathan’s work on AI and robotics, Caleb grows to distrust Nathan due to his lack of respect for his servant Kyoko, who is a humanoid herself. Nathan is an alcoholic, quite narcissistic, and uses his robots for personal pleasure and not much else. Nathan is quite controlling of his latest creation, Ava, and is distrustful of her motives when she is around Caleb.
Without spoiling the rest of this intriguing movie, the running theme that binds these three characters together is how they use each other to further their own means. Ava is using Caleb to pursue her potential future away from Nathan and her isolated life, Caleb is using Nathan to absorb his knowledge and to discover more about this AI phenomenon he has created. Nathan is both using Caleb as a test subject for Ava and to also use Ava for his own pursuit in dominating the field of Artificial Intelligence and the future of robotics.
The end of this film, Ex Machina, has quite a few unexpected twists and turns that will leave the audience member speechless. This movie does a great job of posing questions about the future of humanity and whether we will be able to control artificial intelligence and the sentient beings that may end up usurping us if we are not careful. It’s fascinating to see the humanoid robot character of Ava self-actualize herself throughout the film and her ability to use emotions and feelings to manipulate and best her human creators is astounding. Compared to any other recent science fiction offering, ‘Ex Machina’ is the most realistic in telling us the story of how the latter half of the 21st century might go.
There are many unanswered questions to think about when it comes to this film. Will we be able to control and harness artificial intelligence always or will they be able to usurp our status as the most powerful beings on the planet? What will the relationship be between advanced intelligence creations and human beings? What will AI and humanoid robots expect from human beings and what should we expect from them? Is it right to play God and develop artificial intelligence to the point where they can think like us, act like us, have emotions like us, and even look like us like another face in the crowd?
I am no expert on artificial intelligence or the future of it but I believe that this film Ex Machina is important to watch because there may come a day soon in our lifetimes where the possibilities that are laid out in this film come to fruition. We may want to look at Ex Machina with different perspectives but we should be united in the fact that these issues and questions are not going away anytime soon and will likely become more prominent and pressing as the 21st century rolls on. We ignore the message, the theme, and the scenarios played out in ‘Ex Machina’ to our own detriment. If you are reading this review of ‘Ex Machina’ and are intrigued more about what the 21st century may bring, I would definitely recommend the book by Yuval Noah Harari titled Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow to gain further insight into how the rest of this century may shape up. If one thing’s for certain, our world is changing quite rapidly and it may lead to being beyond our total control as human beings not too far into the future.