Spoiler warning: right out of the gate, I have to tell you that I don’t know if there are spoilers here. I don’t lay scene out explicitly, but this piece also doesn’t shy away from detailing the contained philosophies. I guess be careful if you haven’t seen Ex Machina yet and want to.
I felt betrayed. I fell for her. Like, hard. Ava wasn’t just a female AI that Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb Smith could (and would) love but one that anyone with a heart would.
Ex Machina asks a lot of intellectually overwhelming questions. It is, in fact, one of the most suffocating films I’ve seen in quite a long time. It poses problem after problem for the viewer to chew on all while shoving a compelling and meaty drama down your collapsing throat.
On occasion, it does so through parables, and well known ones at that. Caleb, for example, expresses the thought experiment of Mary’s Room to Ava in one of their sessions. It’s better known as the knowledge argument, created by Frank Jackson to counter the idea of physicalism, a view where everything in the universe is purely physical.
Caleb discusses it in the context of relating one of his AI classes to his talking to an artificial consciousness, but then flips it into a quandary for Ava herself to answer. Are her interactions something physical, something derived from a set of values being one instead of zero, or are they earned from being a true, experiential AI?
It’s an interesting question to pose to an artificial entity (one that the movie presents as an entirely real and thinking being just as you are and I am) and just as interesting of one to think about on your own. Strangely, though, it feels like a mechanical notion. Not just because we are dealing with a machine in Ava but that the question itself feels discrete.
Perhaps it’s because it’s already a fully formed response to a question philosophers have been dealing with for years. And it’s one of many notions I would consider mechanical in this film. The questions it poses regarding a successful AI through the Turing test and that of personal boundaries through locked, physical ones and so on feel as though they are constructed and displayed.
But there are also a great deal more that feel…softer, more ambiguous. Oscar Isaac’s Nathan Bateman throws another consideration in the face of Caleb’s inquiry to Ava’s hardcoded sexuality: isn’t that the point of the interaction of two consciousnesses? It’s an extremely base and cynical view, but it’s still a valid one.
Otherwise, what drive is there? An exchange of knowledge? The original source would be more reliable. So then perhaps it’s curiosity. But to what end? That begs even more questions since curiosity doesn’t lead to a concrete benefit. Is curiosity ingrained into a conscious being or is it an affectation of some other dire need?
The film even calls to light the idea of awareness. Caleb pokes at the testing framework for Ava, wondering if testing specifically for AI-like qualities makes it a reliable test. A chess-playing computer wouldn’t necessarily know it’s playing chess, just that given a situation, it would know how to respond via a set of positions and allowed moves.
So in testing an AI, you would need to test that it knows what it is, not just that it can do what that thing should do. But then it invites the delicious question of how to test that we are what we are. How do you test that a human is a sufficient human like an AI would be a sufficient AI? Is knowing that we are one good enough? We don’t even know what we are supposed to accomplish, unlike an AI.
I’m not even sure what to make of the ending. I don’t know if it’s more statement or question, even if it feels both like an answer and a query. It could be a statement on the strength of goals over the search of them, but the nature of the film itself seems far more question-oriented. It could be an investigation of means and ends, perhaps in regards to Ava as a means to an end and positing that means could have ends of their own far beyond yours.
Like I said, Ex Machina is an overwhelming movie. Intellectually, emotionally, and so many other things in between does it force you to linger a little longer than you have before. It’s also a visually beautiful film with amazing performances, but it’s mental capacity for inquisition is simply far more stunning. From the implications of universal search to humanity out of machines to the simplicity of desires, it’s staggering.
I guess Mary wouldn’t know, though.