“She’s not autistic,” Caleb says to billionaire mad scientist Nathan, who’s asking him to evaluate the artificial humanity of his robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. That’s an interesting comment for him to make, and runs through the heart of all the questions this film asks. While we’re trying to figure out if we can create electronic, artificial conscious and emotional beings, some of the humans these simulations are supposed to emulate don’t pass all the tests. As programmable and predictable as we humans are, we are still a bit beyond our own understanding, and maybe we really can’t replicate ourselves until we better understand ourselves.
POTENTIAL SPOILERS below
This fluid sci-fi film not only plays on our fears about what would happen if we actually created such a thing, (would they overtake us as Nathan speculates, looking back on us as pitiful and inferior creatures?) but it considers why we need to replicate humanity in the first place. We dream of robots who can fill our needs and desires, but what if the robots have needs and desires of their own? Why would we even want that? And if we did want to replicate humanity just because we can (Nathan seems smitten with the idea of being a god, a human god, nonetheless who creates something just because he can,) wouldn’t we want to leave out some of the flaws? And if we left out these perceived flaws, what kind of consciousness would that be?
Since Ava’s intelligence and emotions are based on Big Data from search engines and social media activity, she is as close to being human as she can get, and that involves all the unsavory bits. Like most of us humans, Ava is conscious of her identity, or how she is perceived. She understands that certain behaviors, clothing, and appearances can help get her what she wants. Like us, she is manipulative. Like us, she may be lying, partially or wholly, at any given time. Like us, she may not know who she is, but she understands some of the games she has to play. Like us, she has a desire to survive and experience things, and not be imprisoned. The methods she uses to escape are ruthless, but if she were a bleeding, flesh-constructed human, her actions might be considered heroic and noble. She is a prisoner who wants to be let out of her cage, who’s being tortured and abused by a megalomaniac with a god complex.
Caleb’s the one who cuts himself and bleeds. We both love and recoil at that rich, red color. It’s life and death all at once. It’s a recipe for our person, a hot brew of self. Who we are is partly this bright and salty mixture. He spreads this delicate elixir on the mirror in an act of defiance. The irony of this symbolism, of this distinction between himself and Ava is that his brain, his DNA, may be easier to hack than the robots. Humans are machines, and technology, as magical and other as it can seem, is natural too. It’s operating on the same principles of science that we are. It’s cognitions are similar to our own. Technology needs electricity just as much as we do. Just because we harnessed that electricity, and found out how to electrify other objects, that does not give us full control over that need for energy. No matter how much will we have, all of us machines are reliant on that spark.
But we’ve always been miserable and complex and just smart enough to know how dumb and irrational we can behave. These devices we use aren’t in control, they are still extensions of our selves. They are complex tools, no matter how much we want to blame them for how we use them.
We lap up gossip, engage in disturbing social rituals, yearn for power and money and love. We’re all hardwired by our biology, and then most of our programmable settings are coded and set when we’re too young to know what’s going on. As adults there’s always some smell or voice around the corner about to yank us to some secret forgotten emotion inside of us. We are terrified that we don’t fully know ourselves, that this most precious and private thing we have, ourselves, is still full of surprises, still partially hidden.
Almost everything we do is trying to fill up this perceived loss of understanding that’s heightened by our powerful and irrational emotions and fluctuating sense of self. We call it a void, an emptiness, a monster. We try to draw it, we try to scream it. We trace histories, form narratives, connect every dot we can to etch out a meaning. We spread meaning through the universe, searching for something, draping it with our magic. The search itself is a gesture because we are often creating what we find, constructing it from the information we bump against, and enlivening it with the psychological electricity of our storytelling.
We want to survive, but we also want to sit on a hill holding the most shiny things, and we want people to look at us with respect and love. Like Caleb, we want to be called good, but are afraid that we are not. Like Caleb, we aren’t always entirely sure what constitutes “good.” Most of the time, we are just trying to figure out where we stand in any given situation, situations that are largely out of our control and where the most important information is probably concealed from us by our own confusion. Most of the time we wouldn’t even know it was what we needed if we were staring directly at it. We are both alert and blind at the same time. It’s a punishing mix.
Is Ava as confused as we are, is she as driven for meaning? Her drive to plan and manipulate in order to survive, and her voicing of wanting to observe things she hasn’t seen, seem human, but does she need the stories we need? How does she process her vast amount of information? Does it satisfy her in a way we never quite feel satisfied? The fact that we don’t know what she really wants, but that she does have an inner world, is convincingly human. But she’s probably more sure than we are, her “brain” probably doesn’t get overwhelmed in the way ours does. We are dreamers lost in a cloud. AI is probably something quite different, and once it becomes separate from us, not just an extension, but an entity of itself, what is it?
Every other person is their own universe, with secret beauties and terrors the rest of us will never know. All we can do is filter and interpret from our own universe. In that sense, Ava is like us, because she is ultimately unknowable. At the end, she’s headed out into our world, and it’s unclear what she wants, what will happen to the bodies of the men she left behind or how her “kind” will survive. She’s made identity choices about how she wants to appear to us and she’s demonstrated a fierce will to exist. The fact that she wants anything at all, and that she is a machine cloaked in a somewhat arbitrary exterior much like us, makes us all identify with her more than maybe we would like.
Fun fact: The title, Ex Machine, is derived from “Deus ex Machina,” which does not mean “God in the machine,” as some think it does, but “God from the machine.” It’s a plot device that began in ancient Greek and Roman tragedies where Gods would be inserted into the play through mechanical means like cranes or pulleys to simulate a superhuman type of movement. The phrase has come to mean plot devices or character inserted, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes expertly, into a story to help move it along or get it to to a seemingly impossible conclusion.