Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Ex Machina – the movie

This is a good film for anyone interested in AI at a philosophical level. It even got reviewed in New Scientist and they don’t normally review movies. It’s a clever psychological thriller, so you don’t have to be a nerd to enjoy it, though there are some pseudo-nerdy conversations that are better assimilated if the audience has some foreknowledge. Examples are the Turing Test and the Mary thought experiment regarding colour.

Both of these are explained through expositional dialogue in the movie, rather seamlessly I should add, so ignorance is not necessarily a barrier. The real Turing test for AI would be if an AI could outsmart a human – not in a game of chess or a knowledge-based TV quiz show, but behaviourally – and this is explored as well. Like all good psychological thrillers, there is a clever twist at the end which is not predictable but totally consistent within the context of the narrative. In other words, it’s a well written and well executed drama irrespective of its philosophical themes.

One of the issues not addressed in the movie – because it would spoil it – is the phenomenon known as the ‘uncanny valley’, which I’ve written about here. Basically, when androids become almost human-like in appearance and movement, we become very uncomfortable. This doesn’t happen in the movie, and, of course, it’s not meant to, but it’s the real piece of deception in the film. Despite appearances that the character, Ava, is a machine because we can literally see through parts of her body, we all know that she is really an actress playing a part.

I’ve argued in the aforementioned post that I believe the source of this discomfort is the lack of emotional empathy. In the movie, however, the AI demonstrates considerable empathy, or at least appears to, which is one of the many subtle elements explored. This is very good science fiction because it explores a possible future and deals with it on a philosophical level, including ethical considerations, as well as entertaining us.

There are nods to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Asimov’s I Robot, although that may be my own particular perspective. I’ve created AI’s in my own fiction, but completely different to this. In fact, I deliberately created a disembodied AI, which develops a ‘relationship’ with my protagonist, and appears to display ‘loyalty’. However I explain this with the concept of ‘attachment’ programming, which doesn’t necessarily require empathy as we know it.

I bring this up, because the 2 stories, Ex Machina and mine, explore AI but with different philosophical perspectives and different narrative outcomes.

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