Ex Machinai follows a bright-eyed young hacker named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who wins a lottery at work and is rewarded with a visit to the remote mountain hideaway house of his employer. Nathan (Oscar Isaac), said employer, plays the owner of Google-esque “Bluebook” and is painted as a Larry Page-like brainiac with a penchant for alcohol, security theatre,ii and artificial intelligence. The narrative along which the film follows is that Nathan has created the altogether humanoid and fetchingly feminine Ava (Alicia Vikander) and then tasks Caleb with determining whether in fact Ava, developed as she is from the world’s search engine results combined with the audio and video inputs from the world’s smartphones, is truly intelligent. That the quality of her output is even a discussion given the moralless morass of mud making up her inputs is democratic thinking at its finest. But I suspend my disbelief for a moment.iii
Once going, the film creates a sense of timeless isolationiv as the three main characters test each other in a series of disorganised interviews. Caleb tests Ava on what she wants, Nathan tests Caleb on how he feels about Ava, and Ava tests the two men on their ability to trust a fellow human. Caleb’s testing revolves around the Turing test, which is treated as both logically necessary and logically sufficient for determining the existence of artificial intelligence.v Caleb starts to fall for Ava, as she persuades him that she’s fallen for him,vi and Ava pits the two “people” against each other, quite outsmarting them both. In this, she’s impressive, and meant to be a scary-bad-no-good-thing as a result.
But really, Ava’s just another fear-mongerist boogeyman who fulfills the cataclysmic predictions the apocalyptistic post-post-modernists, those who welcome the Biblical end of days, be it caused by unpredictable climate or preventable pestilence or tyrannical technology, because they drew straight lines from here to infinity. Y’know, like gavincoin. This terrorist philosophy is summed up by Nathan :
One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.
This not only misrepresents evolution, it misrepresents life. There’s nothing “all set for extinction” about humanity. Not in the slightest. We’re the most successful species to date, controlling our environments with unparalleled leveraging of strength, intelligence, and earthly resources. It’s upon these foundations that we’ve created civilisations the likes of which the Universe has never known.vii To say that the current regime of global socialist stupidity, that which utilises crude language and tools and only these, is the be all and end all of humanity is a laugh. Sure, everything dies eventually, but stupidity like “we’re all people” dies even more quickly still.
What’s also died, contrary to the premise of the film and the du jour pretenses of the tech bubble 2.0, is AI itself. There haven’t been marked advances in AI in a generation, not since the potato scientists with too much money imagined themselves gods rather than men. Instead of trying to address the challenge,viii they’ve aimed for comfortable pensions and have consequently produced the types of discardable results that can only come from risk-averse technocrats.
After the space race ended, demonstrating the technological fulfillment of the externally exploratory tradition of the West,ix, Eastern thinking filtered into the otherwise empty skulls of pensioned technocrats who adopted the internally exploratory tradition of Zen Buddhism and Hinduism, those most servile of philosophies.x This then pointed the remaining know-how of American do-ocratists towards the ill-defined boundaries of consciousness and the meaning of human experience. This could only lead to metaphilosophical circle-jerking. And it has. Sprinkled with a liberal amount of “the consumer is always right” as a garnish, just because it was there.
Proper AI would be a Manhattan Project level of endeavour, the type only achievable by concentrating the wealth of a war-time global superpower with the mental faculties of the world’s brightest post-war minds ; those sharpened by technology, conflict, and a classical education. That, and time. Lots of time.
It could happen, but it won’t be because of search engine results. So feel free to find something better to be scared/hopeful about. AI isn’t it.
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- 2015, written and directed by Alex Garland. [↩]
- Seriously, who uses ID cards with the user’s face printed on them but doesn’t have a system that utilises facial recognition software to determine if the card’s user is in fact the intended user ? [↩]
- Well, no, I don’t actually suspend my disbelief for a moment, it’s more a literary remark to keep this review from grinding to a halt than a true statement. I can no more choose to suspend my disbelief than I can choose to forgive. What am I, meta-god ? [↩]
- The film tries to take place during the course of a week but without sunrises and sunsets, and with most of the scenes taking place in an underground bunker, who’s to know ? [↩]
- Much to the discredit of the script’s author, the Turing test is a joke. Seriously, tricking people into believing things of dubious value ain’t that hard, or else Jeebus’ resurrection and Nigerian princes in need of a friend wouldn’t be as legendary as they are.
- Quelle surprise, she hasn’t. [↩]
- Mebbe never ! [↩]
- AI isn’t really “a problem,” you see. The world isn’t short of intelligent and programmable slaves, it’s just that
somea great many women and children have emotional hang-ups about treating the resources we have right in front of us as… resources. Instead, everyone is a Medal of Honour earning hero fit to be memorialised for all eternity with a viral YouTube video.
So AI is not only struggling from a lack of sensible specification, it’s also fighting the thermodynamic inefficiency of creating artificial life compared to biological life. Mother Nature has been at this game a lot longer than we have, and in 9 months, plus another decade for training, she can produce a hearty little servant that will understand commands and be able to execute them reliably. And, thanks to the power of the decentralised factory that is the uterus and the decentralised practise facility that is the family unit, at scale too ! Isn’t life magical ? [↩]
- In the vein of Hernán Cortés and Vasco de Gama. [↩]
- While I lend sufficient credit to the concept of mind over matter, this isn’t to say that life is everlasting and eternal and that our minds will live on forever. Even if Spinoza, whom I’m quite fond of, makes persuasive arguments in this direction, it doesn’t make it relevant to our earthly contests for power and dominion. [↩]