by Tim Jones 3/21/16
What Could Go Wrong? The unintended consequences of artificial intelligence • Ex Machina, released in 2015, may be the best movie about artificial intelligence to come along in years. It gives an outstanding portrayal of a possible A.I. revolution in all of its ethical and philosophical dimensions, not to mention what it might actually look like. What I found to be one of the many excellent themes to the movie is how it examines that question as to what is real and what is not with the emerging A.I. technologies.
It shows how the line between the two are becoming blurred and what will happen once that line is destroyed forever. The movie displays in an underlying narrative the role humans are playing in their possible slow-motion suicide by playing God with technology through the advancing sophistication of artificial intelligence.
Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac, is an ultra-wealthy man who made his billions by creating a search engine called Blue Book (think Sergey Brin or Larry Page of Google). Nathan lives in a remote and beautiful Alaskan location accessible only by helicopter. He recruits Caleb (played by Domhnall Gleeson), a computer programmer who specializes in search engine algorithms, to “test” his humanoid invention, which he’s named Ava. Ava is played by Alicia Vikander who just won best supporting actress for her role in The Danish Girl.
Nathan feels he needs a third party to interact with Ava in order to determine if she meets the criteria for being true artificial intelligence by using the Turing Test (named after the father of the modern computer, Alan Turing), in which one gathers “inputs from machines and other humans and then [has a] human try to determine which inputs are coming from a machine and which are coming from a human.”
Most of the movie involves a series of meetings between Caleb and Ava in which they interact by taking turns asking each other a variety of questions. But behind those meetings is a hidden agenda of Nathan’s – one he doesn’t reveal until later.
At one point Caleb quotes J. Robert Oppenheimer (who was quoting the Bhagavad Gita) right after the first test explosion of an atomic bomb – “I’ve become death, destroyer of worlds” – when having one of his discussions with Nathan following a meeting with Ava. It points to the underlying theme about the real danger artificial intelligence poses. In our world of evolving technical “progress,” science is moving to a new form of potential self-destruction after having already created nuclear weapons.
Ava ends up passing the Turing Test, but it takes an unexpected turn (let’s say it goes awry in a big way) toward the end of the movie. It is the Hegelian dialectic that’s replaced Christian eschatology – that is, the misplaced idea that man can manipulate the material world in order to make it a better and more perfect one (the yearning for a utopian heaven on earth) rather than living an ethical life in a broken temporal world for salvation in a perfect eternal afterlife – and all of the real and lethal dangers that come with the hubris of man playing God, especially when moral considerations are left out of the equation.