Ex Machina: A Text on AI and Other Human Problems

-Bianca Huang

Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015) is a psychological thriller, and mirror to all the complexities we must face in a new future where humanity and machines will walk amongst each other. It presents an unsettling representation of gender as Ava (Alicia Vikander) uses her allure and charm to seduce Caleb (Dohmnall Gleeson) into thinking that she has consciousness, and later, helping her escape. Why must Ava achieve her goals and pass the Turing Test using allure and charm and not intelligence and wit, which she clearly possesses? In comparison, we know of other cyborgs and forms of AI in films who identify as male who use their intuition and strength to demonstrate sophistication. Evidently, the double standards of men and women are not excluded from the world of AI. (Notice how I attribute Ava with the personal pronoun ‘she’, when really ‘she’ is an it). We use female pronouns to address a machine that inherently possesses no gender, yet we assign one because Ava exemplifies the appearance and gender stereotypes of a woman. Moreover, in order to make sense of a complex apparatus, we assign it a gender in the form of a voice or physical features. For example, Siri is identified as a female because of its feminine voice.  Also, the film in its entirety is an example of everything discomforting about the effects of the male gaze. Nathan (Oscar Isaac), Ava’s creator, represents the scientists and mathematicians of today who are creating a future of AI. Of whom, are predominantly male. Ava was created to embody Caleb’s male desires, thus she is an example of how AI is subject to the male gaze like any other product or service. The tech industry is no exception to serving the male fantasy. The evaluation of women and machine as synonymous, is no coincidence considering most AI forms are characterized as female. The idea that men understand women as a separate species may explain this parallel.


Also, the original Turing Test, also known as the Imitation Game, started off as a simple game involving three players where one (Player C) would have to distinguish which of the two other players is a man (Player A), and which is a woman (Player B).  Turing concluded that if a woman can easily convince someone she is a man, then a machine can convince someone they are a human.

As Turing made amendments to his game, the woman in the scenario was replaced with a computer furthering the connection between women and AI.

When Nathan explains how Ava obtained her knowledge of the modern world, he says, “My competitors were fixated on monetizing search engines…But actually they were a map of how people were thinking” (Ex Machina). For AI to be as competent as Ava in the film, they will have to have access to a multitude of information datamined in search engines we use everyday. Just as you click Google, an AI will be able to skip the clicking and navigating of the internet and immediately be able to acquire knowledge. Language, geography, history, social interactions, and economic markets will be accessible by nature for these cyborgs. Machines will have access to everything we know, and more.

As Nathan notes, search engines are a map of how people think, not what they think.

Our search history, purchases, movements, and locations are all a part of big data. We would like to believe that this information is inherently ours to keep, or it simply disappears as we delete our history. Larger corporations and powerful players, like Nathan, do not have sympathy for our desire for privacy and frankly, most of us have come to accept this electronic panopticon as inevitable.


However, if we are aware of what the AI is using for feedback, the procedure could be corrupted. For example, Microsoft’s recent disastrous ‘Tay’ experiment of a chat bot tweeting racist and hateful rhetoric is a real life example that highlights the complexities of AI. As much as the AI was ‘thinking’ for itself, it was also mirroring without questioning. The nuances of inflated “internet speak” were lost on this experiment, and it resulted in problematic responses from Tay. Tay’s dialogue was based on crowdsourcing online interactions between millennials.

This experiment actually reveals more about humans than defective chat bots.

Here, an AI’s formulated responses illustrate how humans can produce self-destructive and toxic rhetoric. The Tay experiment warned us about the slippery slope of AI just as much as it took a mirror to human’s behaviour on the internet.


If Raymond Kurzweil, a partner of Google and futurist, sees people as simply information that can be transferred into a highly intelligent, and eventually autonomous metallic vessel, how as humans do we compare? Can a mind be reduced to information? In Ex Machina the sophistication of Ava came not from her ability to aggregate data, but to manipulate human emotion. Ava appealed to Caleb not through rationality but the complete opposite, and Nathan sees these interactions as deliberate. Ava intentionally mirrored the logic of humans which, contrary to the enlightenment belief, is not rational. Ava used emotions to pass the Turing test because that is what humans (and Caleb) are the most responsive and weak to.

Does the movie’s plot by exposing human emotion as some sort of weakness make a comment on the superiority of AI and rationality? Maybe all our questions about AI are helping us find out more about humans, what it means to be human, and what is a human exactly.

Ex Machina does not tell us about AI, it reflects human’s view of AI. While we make great strides in developing the first Ava, we must recognize our own value as human beings. Through algorithms and data, we can easily teach a machine to be proficient in any task. But will there be a way to program human values such as empathy, love, and other complex emotions? Values that are so integral to the human experience? How can we be sure artificial intelligence is not just imitating these values, like what Caleb saw in Ava? There are always more questions than answers, but maybe this time, AI won’t have the answers.


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