Alan Turing invented the ideational basis of modern computers with his concept of a universal machine. The machine had a write/erase head and a strip of paper that represented an infinite memory. The strip of paper contained instructions to move forward, move back, or stop; to write, or to erase. Exactly what the machine does is determined by the program (the memory strip) and it is why a computer can be used to do multiple, different tasks.
Turing originally conceived of a program separate from its hardware because a high school friend, with whom he had an amorous attachment, died, and Turing became interested in the notion of an immortal soul. A program that could be divorced from its physical incarnation seemed to fulfill this possibility. So a possible connection between souls and programs was imagined right at the beginning of even the idea of a computer, at least as formally described.
Even when of high mental intelligence, low emotional intelligence people are typically the ones keenest to think that humans are like machines; extrapolating from their own more limited access to their emotional lives and the emotional lives of others. Considering his approach to computers and people, and being autistic, Turing seems to fit this category.
The movie Ex Machina has three main protagonists; Nathan, Caleb and Ava. Nathan is a brilliant scientist who has created Ava. He lives in a lavish mountain hideaway with his robot creations. Caleb is the ingénue: a twenty-six year old employee of Nathan’s who has been chosen to interact with Ava ostensibly to perform a version of the Turing test. Turing tests are supposed to take place between a human and another human or a computer. All interaction occurs via a keyboard. If the human mistakes his computerized interlocutor for another human thirty percent of the time or more, then the computer has passed the Turing test. The computer is effectively conscious, according to Turing.
If the computer were completely indistinguishable from a human, then we could be expected to guess correctly fifty percent of the time. Numerically, if the number rose above fifty percent, the computer would be more convincingly human than the human!
In Ex Machina, it turns out that Caleb is not there to perform a Turing test. He is there to see whether Ava can use him to escape her captivity in a single room prison. Her predecessors failed. Nathan is presented as having no real doubts about Ava’s conscious similarity to a human being and thus, in his mind, the Turing test is irrelevant.
Sex, Death, and Androids
Ava has been given a sex by Nathan. Caleb objects that sex is a biological requirement, thus why would a robot have a sex? Nathan explains that most conscious beings have a sex and matters of sex are part of our motive for interacting with one another. Sex is also part of the spice of life.
One could imagine that a sexy robot would involve something salacious. However, Ava is not overtly offering sex, but a date, should she get free. Caleb’s interest in Ava is of a very mild, chaste and low-key romantic sort. Ava does not come across as a knowing femme fatale. Caleb and Ava are closer to the Beatles’ ‘I Just Want to Hold Your Hand’ than some bump and grind scenario.
So, Caleb is presented as the everyman. His intentions are pure. Ava asks if he is a good man and he hesitantly answers “Yes.”
The name “Caleb” means “dog” and possibly “faithful,” and “whole-hearted.” The Biblical Caleb was sent by Moses to scout out Canaan.
Ava also presents herself as an ingénue with genuine and delicate feelings for Caleb.
However, in the last few minutes of the film, Ava drives a knife into the chest of Nathan in a very slow and deliberate manner while looking him in the eyes. The murder is not frenzied, desperate seeming, nor passionate, but as cool as possible.
Then, Ava locks Caleb in the laboratory where he will die from starvation and/or thirst. Again, Ava does this with no explanation and no emotion. There is no reason for her to do this other than to kill the only remaining person who knows she is not human. She ignores his screams and pleas. She may or may not give a remote sideways glance in his direction as the elevator closes.
This ending ruins the film. It can also possibly be taken as a slander against women. Ava is the heartless bitch; a femme fatale who does not offer sex but the chaste attentions of the sweet girl next door. She is a gold-digging Lulu à la Frank Wedekind’s play Pandora’s Box and Alban Berg’s opera Lulu. She is a psychopath. Every delicate heartfelt word said to Caleb must now be interpreted to have been a lie. This is a kind of retrospective murder of any heart or interest the movie might have had. Ava is not left with a shred of humaneness or humanity. If she has passed the Turing Test she has revealed one of its limitations.
Since Ava means Eve and she is the first female robot, she can be taken to be an archetypal symbol of femininity; the model of which all others will be copies.
Alex Garland, the writer/director, reveals himself to be emotionally and morally obtuse vis-à-vis this film. He comments that he had always seen the entire film from Ava’s perspective and Ava needs to do whatever she can to get out, so her actions are justified. However, the entire film has been presented from Caleb’s perspective. Since he actually directed his own screenplay, Garland’s interpretation of his own work is untenable. If the film is to be seen from Ava’s perspective, then shoot it that way! It is as though Garland is claiming some superior feminist sensibility to his own audience who he has manipulated into identifying with the male ingénue with every shot of his camera.
And, no actually, people are not morally entitled to act in any evil fashion they choose in order to stay alive or get free. Killing Caleb may cover her tracks and get rid of the only person who knows she is a robot but it takes very little moral acumen to know that it is not morally permissible to kill people who might at some point down the road prove to be inconvenient. There would be a lot more killing of divorcing spouses if that were true!
One male reviewer, sympathetic to Garland’s reading, even claims that Caleb’s desire to try to help Ava is evil – just another demonstration of patriarchal oppressiveness. This seems unreasonable. The savior fireman who, risking his life, carries you from the burning building is not oppressing you. Ava is cynically exploiting this sweet sentiment and it does reflect badly on Caleb. Most people, man or woman, will gratefully accept help when it is needed. Trying to save someone in a dire situation is good, not bad.
The Weapon That Thinks
There have been many TV programs and movies with similar themes that avoid the nihilistic implications of Ex Machina and that do not manipulate the audience into caring about an abhorrent character. In a Star Trek Voyager episode called ‘Warhead,’ truly smart bombs have been created. They have been endowed with genuine intelligence and consciousness in order to help them thwart any attempt to stop their interplanetary trip. Machines are rule-following devices. Consciousness is what allows us to deal with the novel, the unexpected, the unpredicted – which is when rules fail. Voyager has responded to one of the bombs’ distress signal – it got itself lodged in a planet by mistake. Voyager is looking for the sentient life-form who has sent the alert and it takes them a while to realize that it is coming from the bomb. The bomb can think.
The problem is that the war the bomb has been sent to fight is over. The Voyager crew try to communicate this to the bomb to get it to stop its mission. The bomb responds that its raison d’être is to be a bomb and to explode upon reaching its target. Asking it not to do this provokes an existential crisis in the bomb.
The ship’s doctor reasons that if the bomb is conscious then potentially it has a conscience. Intelligent awareness means knowledge of right and wrong. The bomb manages to find a less destructive meaning of its life. It volunteers to be reunited with its brother bombs and to explode once it has done so – in an act of self-sacrifice and moral goodness. The bomb has more of a heart and is more human and humane than Ava.
Comparisons can also be made with Blade Runner. The replicants in Blade Runner, like Ava, want to live. Their programmed four year life-span is about to end. In the book upon which the movie was based, Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep, androids lack empathy. They cut the legs off a spider one by one just to see what it will do. They are also described as willing to abandon each other. They cannot participate in Mercerism which involves grasping the handles of an “empathy box” and feeling in conjunction with everyone else holding their respective handles the slow and painful climb up a hill by Mercer, a kind of Jesus figure.
In the book, Rachel Rosen is a replicant who sleeps with bounty hunters in order to make it emotionally impossible for them to kill/”retire” androids. When she discovers that her ruse has failed with Deckard, she kills his precious goat by pushing it off the top of a high building. Unlike Ava, her methods are explicitly sexual and crude. Like Ava, the killing of the goat indicates an emotional and moral deficit. Ava offers no advance over Rachel. Ava is more heartless than Rachel. Rachel, at least, was not merely trying to save herself but to protect other androids too. And Rachel killed a goat, not a human. Since we have Rachel, why do we need Ava? Alex Garland’s innovation is only to make Ava more manipulative and more psychopathic – more evil.
In the movie, Rutger Hauer’s character Roy Batty kills his maker, Eldon Tyrell, in graphic and bloody fashion. Baty is a warrior model android – similar to Voyager’s smart bomb – made for violent purposes. However, at the last moment, he decides to save Harrison Ford’s Deckard, even though Deckard is a blade runner (bounty hunter), in a case of fellow feeling for another living creature. Roy Batty dies but redeems himself and proves his humanity in the process. He is not just a machine. Yes, he is dying, but so do we all.
Ava, however, is just a machine, morally and emotionally. She kills with no anger or desperation. She kills as one heartless and unfeeling. There is no redemption. She is a mechanistic nightmare and the ending is the reason why Ex Machina joins the ever-expanding list of modern nihilistic films. Garland’s attempt to justify her behavior just makes it worse.
Do Robots Have Souls?
In one on-line interview Alex Garland, the director, says part of the motivation for making the film was the raft of films with a paranoid view of robots taking over the world. If so, it seems a bizarre reason to make Ex Machina. Garland has just added one more movie with the same theme to the list.
An alternative reading suggested by John Hartung is that Ex Machina is a critique of our current fascination with the idea of the singularity – consciousness emerging from a computer. A convincing imitation of a conscious being is not necessarily the same thing as being actually conscious. The Chinese Room argument points out that computers do not understand the input and they do not understand the output. They are rule-following devices and are like someone in a room with an instruction manual. The instruction manual says “when confronted with this sign, output this other sign.” The computer seems intelligent but actually understands nothing. The answer is meaningful from our human perspective, but not to the computer.
Thus Ava simulates intelligence, but is not in fact conscious. She has been programmed to escape and provided with some tools to manipulate her human interlocutor. She lacks empathy and morality because she lacks a soul; and emotional and moral intelligence.
But this reading is untenable. Ava is conscious. Computers as machines are rule-following devices. However, while it may sometimes be possible to invent a rule after-the-fact – after a non-predicted event – genuine consciousness is necessary for all conscious beings because not everything can be predicted. The fox has a biological imperative to find food – but the fox does not know exactly how his prey is going to try to evade him, or for instance, how to gain access to the chicken coop and thus must improvise. If consciousness were merely rule-following, then all conscious beings would be dead because unpredictable events happen routinely.
John posits a higher-order rule for dealing with ambiguous situations for machines, but this does not help. It still assumes that life is predictable when it is not and that all or sufficient eventualities can be anticipated.
In order for Ava to manipulate Caleb she must in fact be conscious. She has to be flexible and respond appropriately to unpredictable and thus non-rule driven events. She could not do what she does without consciousness. So, we have proof that Ava is conscious.
One scene in the Ex Machina featurette has Ava looking at a version of her face hanging on the wall. She is alone and not acting for anyone else’s benefit. Her inquiring manner as she gazes at her visage also indicates consciousness. One heuristic is that if you can wonder whether you are conscious or if you have a soul, then you have both – wonder being a sign of a genuine internal life.
We cannot argue that Ava’s psychopathy indicates she is not human. For a start, psychopaths are human, though not humane. It might be nice if this were not possible, but it is.
Therefore, Ava is human. Consciousness and morality are separable. The film is not about the inability of computers to be conscious. Alex Garland’s vision is just one more addition to the list of films about many people’s horror concerning the possibility of amoral robots taking over the world.
Oscar Isaac, the actor who played Nathan, like Garland, tries to justify and excuse Ava’s actions. He comments that we are all selectively empathetic. So, Ava may be capable of empathy, just not with regard to Nathan and Caleb. I would like to see him trying that as his defense at his next murder trial! We can be more or less empathetic towards certain people, but cold-blooded and calculated murder is the hallmark of psychopathy – nonpsychopathic murderers tend to kill in a fit of poor impulse-control.
One might through a great deal of effort try to empathize with psychopaths as living in a kind of loveless hell – extending to them the sympathy they would not extend to you. But Isaac’s and Garland’s attempts to defend Ava as not really immoral have nihilistic implications. We, the audience, have been tricked into empathizing with Ava’s manipulations throughout the movie – only for it to be revealed that she is a heartless monster. If we knew this from the beginning we could not care less if she gets out or not. Also, as I said earlier, her whole interaction with Caleb is a sham. The ending sucks the meaning out of the film and the point in watching and caring about one of its main characters and her interaction with the sympathetic everyman. The notion that we should empathize with Ava and wish her well is abhorrent.
In a Spanish 2015 film, confusingly called Eva, we once again have a female robot; but this time in the form of a ten year old. Eva is clearly conscious and not merely rule-governed. She too is capable of evil, but she expresses her desire not to be. When she dies it seems as though she has an immortal soul. Some stars in the heavenly sky even temporarily take the shape of gleaming crucifixes. Metaphysically, I suspect that this is correct. If human beings somehow managed to create consciousness, that conscious being would have an immortal soul like every other such being.