Over the summer holidays, I caught an ABC Science Show podcast, The Year in Tech. Science reporter, Ariel Bogle, discussed with her editor, Jonathan Webb, tech stories that had caught her eye in 2017. She opened with an audio clip from the Ex Machina movie that instantly spiked my interest.
"Hello." "Hi, I'm Caleb." "Hello, Caleb." "Do you have a name?" "Yes, Ava." "I'm pleased to meet you, Ava." "I'm pleased to meet you, too."
I paused the podcast and Googled the Ex Machina clip on YouTube. It was every bit as eerie visually as it was to listen to the audio on the podcast. I had to watch the movie!
And so a few weeks later I'm watching Ex Machina, on my own, so I can focus on the plot and dialogue, with only the family dog providing the occasional "Can you pat my tummy?" distractions.
Caleb Smith, a programmer at a Googlesque internet search giant, wins a competition to spend a week with the company CEO at his mountain estate. As Caleb flies in the helicopter to the meet the CEO, Nathan Bateman, he asks the pilot, "How long until we get to his estate?" The pilot chuckles and replies, "We've been flying over his estate for the past two hours."
Caleb learns Bateman wants him to be the "human component" in a Turing test, a "test of a machine's ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human". The "machine" is one of Nathan's latest experiments in artificial intelligence (A.I.), Ava.
As the Ex Machina movie website says, "Ava is a breathtaking A.I. whose emotional intelligence proves more sophisticated - and more deceptive - that the two men could have imagined."
In the ABC Science podcast, science reporter Bogle explained she did not play the Ex Machina audio clip to talk about "fembots", but rather, "I wanted to play it because it's such a good movie. I wanted to remind everybody to go watch it if they haven't already." I suspect Bogle also wanted to contrast the A.I. of Ava in the movie with an article about the algorithms and machine learning technology that might impact our daily lives, titled Can A.I. Be Taught to Explain Itself? (New York Times, November 21, 2017).
In Ex Machina, Bateman wants Caleb to decide not only if Ava can "explain" herself, but whether her behaviour is indistinguishable from a human. He monitors Caleb's every interaction with Ava via CCTV and is especially keen to know if Caleb feels "attraction" towards Ava.
It's not much of a spoiler to reveal Bateman proves to be a less than likeable character. Hardly surprising for a technology mogul whose empire is built on understanding and manipulating the use of the internet (with apologies to Google and Facebook CEOs) and whose estate you can fly over for two hours in a helicopter!
Ex Machina could be set in the not too distant future ... or now! It is a movie about advanced A.I. and Ava's awakening. I think it's also a movie about the unbridled power of technology and whether it's wise to allow the concentration of that power in the hands of an individual (read that as a person or corporation!).
The role Bateman's A.I. "experiments" play in his life also raises the contemporary issue of fembots for home help and "companionship". Is it morally right to treat "female humanoid" robots as servants and sexual slaves? Does this not reflect and normalise a male-centric and chauvinist view of women in the world?
I have always enjoyed science fiction that makes me think on several planes. So thanks, ABC Science Show and Ariel Bogle for your tip. I found Ex Machina to be a movie that made me think!
© 2018 Robert Fairhead
Sydney, NSW, Australia.
A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert is an editor and a writer for Tall And True and blogs at RobertFairhead.com. He enjoys reading, writing, playing the guitar, walking his dog, and watching Aussie Rules Footy with his son. Robert has worked as an electrician, sales and marketing rep, computer programmer, dog trainer and (wanna-be) writer. He also had a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.