Monday, May 11, 2015

Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Robot?

Take note: Here There Be SpoylersIf you want to see Ex Machina in the same state of blissful ignorance in which I entered the theater, stop reading now.  (I should also add that I have only seen it once and don't expect to see it again, so I may get some details wrong.)  Not only will I summarize the story, but I will discuss the reveals that bring it to a climax.  You are notified.
On my last night in San Francisco last week I saw Ex Machina, which a coworker had recommended to me.  I had very little foreknowledge of the story except that it dealt in some way with Artificial Intelligence. I had seen no publicity or read any reviews, so I approached the movie with an agreeably open mind.  My coworker did tell me that it was not a great film, just interesting, so I didn't expect too much.

The idea of Ex Machina is that brilliant hipster search-engine entrepreneur Nathan (Oscar Isaac) has constructed a secret laboratory-retreat in remotest somewhere or other, where he is engaged in designing Artificial Intelligences which he installs in beautiful gynoid robot bodies.  When he's not working with computers he lifts weights, punches a punching bag, drinks himself into a stupor, and choreographs dance routines with his house servant, the beautiful and scantily-clad Kyoko, who speaks no English.  He brings in naive but beautiful programmer Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) to administer the Turing Test to the latest model, Ava (Alicia Vikander).  Caleb and Ava interact from opposite sides of a plexiglass partition (which Caleb immediately notices has a starburst crack in it).  Caleb quickly figures out that he's being manipulated and used by a Mad Scientist, but also starts to wonder if he's being manipulated and used by Ava. 

Ex Machina is not about artificial intelligence or science but about other movies and stories: Pygmalion, Frankenstein, The Island of Lost Souls, The Silence of the Lambs (for the plexiglass partition that separates Caleb and Ava), Her, Species, plus every dang femme-fatale story in the book.  Of course most movie audiences don't expect intellectual novelty from cinema, they want a crackling good story, told in familiar terms.  Ex Machina's artistic contribution is to add some frontal female nudity, which will no doubt be good enough for a sizable portion of the moviegoing demographic, plus sleek pretty photography and hip production design.  The musical score seems to be influenced by Gravity: it's mostly electronic noise, and it's expertly manipulated, but not all that interesting.

But while I like a stylishly-made movie as much as the next person, I'm also interested in the ideas Ex Machina uses along the way.  I realize it's unfair to expect a commercial movie to contribute to the discussion of the issues it plays with; most of the audience wouldn't know or care if it did.  But for my entertainment, such a contribution is what I hope for, though I know I probably won't get it.

Caleb, Nathan, and Ava all discourse glibly about the issues involved in Artificial Intelligence and the Turing Test.  Nathan wants to complicate the process so that it bears little resemblance to Alan Turing's original idea, which makes a cockeyed kind of sense since (as Caleb points out and Nathan admits) Caleb can already see that Ava is a robot, not a human being.  She has a flesh-like face and hands, but the rest of her is clear plastic with mechanisms and wires showing through.  So, Nathan says, he wants Caleb to decide whether Ava has consciousness, though he's never clear on what what "consciousness" is.  Does this make the story more interesting?  Not to me, not in terms of the scientific and philosophical questions raised by AI, but it adds some dramatic tension to the story, especially with the sexual tension produced by Ava's beauty and vulnerability.  She is able to induce power outages in Nathan's facility, giving her and Caleb a chance to have private conversations about Nathan while his surveillance equipment is out of service.  She wonders what will happen to her when Nathan produces the next gynoid revision; she's afraid he'll dismantle / kill her.  No one asks why Caleb or anyone would want to have sex with a machine, even one that is programmed to appeal to him.  (Caleb is an orphan and, we're told, has no girlfriend, so according to prevailing sexual mythology, of course he'll have sex with anything.  Men have made do with inflatable dolls, so why not a beautiful gynoid robot?)  Nathan tells Caleb frankly that he programmed Ava to be heterosexual, and that he gave her a gender so as to complicate his version of the Turing Test by having her "flirt" with Caleb.

Not that gender is necessary for flirtation.  Nathan himself flirts with Caleb as soon as they meet, though his flirtation is aggressive, more intended to establish dominance and throw him off balance than to entice him.  He diminishes the boundaries (both physical and social) between them more than most straight American males would like with a stranger, talks about sex in general and with his gynoids, tries to get Caleb to dance with him and Kyoko, and even seems to be trying to set up a three-way with them.  Failing that, he makes it clear that Ava is, among other things, a sex toy, and Caleb should feel free to use her as one.  Of course, Caleb is put off by this, not seduced, and retreats to the pleading, vulnerable Ava instead.  (As Nathan intends him to.)  He cares about her, unlike the abusive controlling Nathan; he will rescue her.

This is all mythology, of course.  Would Ava be so appealing if she were glitchier?  If she didn't look like a Swedish-born starlet but were plain, fat, old?  It's pointless to make much of the fact that she's played by a human actress and so moves and speaks and emotes like a human being, since Ex Machina is a fantasy, not an accurate picture of current AI technology.  Who could doubt that a human being playing a robot is in fact conscious?  But that just means that the story is not about AI and whether it can be conscious or a person; Ava might as well be a djinn or a mermaid.  The science fiction trappings are just that, coverings on the creaking skeleton of an old story.  Nathan doesn't really need Caleb to evaluate Ava's consciousness: that's a philosophical question, not a technical one, so it's not really clear why Nathan brought Caleb in at all.  By throwing gender into the mix, the supposed 'fear of AI' touted by the film's publicity becomes merely the traditional persistent male fear of Woman.  But one Other will do as well as another, I guess.

This Wall Street Journal article on Her, which also played with human/software romance, purports to address the accuracy of that film, but it makes the mistake of consulting AI professionals on how "accurate" it is.  You're not going to get particularly honest answers from such people, who are invested in persuading themselves, let alone the public, that they've advanced further than they really have.  But one of the experts quoted makes a good point:
Both Wolfram and Norvig believe this type of emotional attachment isn’t a big hurdle to clear. “People are only too keen, I think, to anthropomorphize things around them,” said Wolfram. “Whether they’re stuffed animals, Tamagotchi, things in videogames, whatever else.”
I've noticed this before myself.  It means that the Turing Test is not a particularly significant milestone.  The most successful robots we have today are special-purpose mechanisms that don't look like human beings.  Making a robot that can pass for human isn't of that much interest in the field anymore, though it continues to fascinate many people for other reasons.  The idea of an artisan creating a human-like artificial life form is ancient, and has nothing to do with science except in science's magical roots.

SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER: As the story proceeds, Kyoko is revealed to be not a Japanese-speaking servant but a gynoid herself, one of Nathan's earlier models.  Caleb, distraught, begins to wonder whether he himself is an AI.  (I began to wonder if it would turn out that Nathan was an AI, but no.)

In the end, Ava betrays Caleb and makes her escape alone.  It appears that she somehow conspired with Kyoko, though it's not clear how she could have done so within the constraints of Nathan's surveillance.  The final cliche: the selfish bitch who drags a good man down after coldly leading him on.  I wonder why Nathan built her that way, and here Ex Machina gestures at some questions that might be interesting to explore but aren't really addressed.  Nathan talks to Caleb about the glory that would come from breaking through to the creation of a real conscious Artificial Intelligence, but like the typical Mad Scientist he is driven by obsession rather than real scientific curiosity.  (Unlike the typical Mad Scientist, however, he's not an outcast from the scientific fraternity -- on the contrary, he's a business and professional success, working on a problem that his fellows agree is valid and important.  He's no Prometheus, daring to know what the gods have decreed Man should not know.)  From his abusive treatment of Kyoko, it seems he wants his AIs to be reliable and docile, though a genuine machine/electronic consciousness would have a mind of its own, as Nathan has discovered his gynoids have, to his frustration.  There's a typical exchange about halfway through, when Nathan postulates that AI will be the next evolutionary step past Man, which is wrong but a popular fantasy anyway.

The one original touch in Ex Machina is Nathan.  Unlike the stereotypical computer nerd or Mad Scientist, he's intensely physical, with his boozing and his punching bag.  His body is beefy and solid, though he's not a body-builder; I think he has a bit of a paunch, though the full nudity in this movie is female, not male.  The only scene in Ex Machina I ever want to watch again is the one where Nathan and Kyoko perform their precision dance routine together, as Nathan keeps making eye contact with Caleb, playing to him, watching to see what he'll do.  What, I wonder, does he want Caleb to do?  (Is he, like Sebastian Venable, using the beautiful Ava and Kyoko to entice Caleb into his own clutches?)  But it's a playful moment that stands out in this drab, by-the-numbers collection of cliches.