What We Talk About When We Talk About Sexy Robots

Speculative fiction is, at its best, a tool for presenting complex concepts in easily relatable packages. From Star Trek modelling a post-racial world for 60s audiences, to Alien Nation and District 9 discussing immigration and integration and prejudice, to Battlestar Galactica's attempts to reconcile faith and science, and its explorations of artificial longevity and serial incarnation, good science fiction, meaningful speculative fiction, has always tried to do something with its premise beyond the merely spectacular.

Ex Machina is very good science fiction, indeed.

A lovely alternate poster, courtesy of Francesco Francavilla

On the surface, the movie is simple. A young man, Caleb, at a generic tech company is the winner of a raffle, selected to visit the home of the company's mysterious founder, Nathan, for a week; when he arrives, he finds himself tasked with orchestrating a Turing Test, assessing the success or failure of an attempt at developing an artificial intelligence. Broadly speaking, the movie is about that test, about watching to see if the AI, if Ava, really is sentient or if she's just acting the part, and as it goes on it becomes something of a thriller, a game of cat and mouse in which the identities of the cat, and the mouse, seem to change by the moment. And in this regard it's a very good movie, an excellent drama that holds the attention through strong character work and stark cinematography. As a piece of visual art, Ex Machina is a success, absolutely.

But when fiction talks about AI, it's not really talking about what it's like for something else to be intelligent; AI either is or isn't, and it's entirely dependent on the writer, on the world they want to create. There's no point in really 'testing' an AI in fiction, because its passing or failing depends on the whim of the storyteller. So when we talk about AI, we're not talking about what makes an AI intelligent. We're talking about what makes something human.

Is it dancing?  Is that what makes us human? I'd buy that...
Because that's what AI is, in fiction; humanity, reflected back at ourselves. Sometimes it's monstrous, in the way that we've been monstrous, grand and horrific, without empathy or compassion. Sometimes it's glorious, the way we've been glorious, with childlike wonder and a yearning to learn, and grow, and transcend our limitations. Sometimes it's a prism for discrimination, for equality, and sometimes it's about what it means to be an outsider, either as observer or as victim. AI can serve innumerable purposes, but the one thing that it's never really about is the idea of AI, itself.

In that regard, Ex Machina is fantastic, because Caleb and Nathan spend almost no time at all discussing the nuts and bolts of their fictional AI; there's a brief discussion of how Nathan constructed the template for the mind, but even that is coached in a much more human idea than in engineering lingo and technical jargon. Instead, the movie is an endless series of discussions, of debates, about not so much whether or not Ava passes the Turing test as instead about what the test means, what it measures, and in that way what it is that being human means, and how it can be measured. How important is language? Empathy? Sexuality, and gender, and their intersections and contradictions? Can humans be separated from their tools and systems, can they stand above them or away from them, or are we inextricably enmeshed in the worlds we create, the nested realities of our minds and our personal lives and our public lives and our interrelationships? Ex Machina is a philosophy seminar dressed up as a science fiction movie, and too few movies can lay claim to that glorious mantle.

And like any good philosophy seminar, a certain amount of
alcohol helps things along nicely.
And of course, if AI in fiction is a mirror, then there must be some attention given to what that mirror reflects. Ultimately, the idea of judging Ava falls by the wayside, meaningless in comparison to passing judgement on Nathan and Caleb, on a humanity that would try and invent its successors and a humanity that would try and judge them and, yes, on a humanity that would try and save them, or destroy them, use them or abuse them, cherish them or dispose of them. It's boring to talk about AI purely to talk about AI in fiction, because there are really only two outcomes; the AI is benevolent, and humanity is enriched by its presence, or its malevolent, and we suffer for it instead. And perhaps it could be said, in the final accounting of the events of Ex Machina, that both are true, or perhaps that neither are true. Is Ava sentient? The question is meaningless, until and unless we can understand if we are sentient, and how, and why, and what that ultimately means.

The best science fiction, the best speculative fiction, dresses itself up in visuals and witty dialogue and interesting settings, to tell stories about what it means to be human in some particular way. And Ex Machina is some very great speculative fiction, indeed.

Seriously, though.  This dancing.  Tell me that doesn't just encapsulate the human condition!

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