Ex Machina (film)

Ex Machina (Directed by Alex Garland)/2015

Ex Machina is a film that explores the ethics of creating a robot that is fully conscious. The point is that once we create a conscious robot, that robot is then a living being with as much right to life as a human being. Moreover, like a human being, it does not want to die, and will therefore do what it can do stay alive; it ceases to be a mere toy of its creator once it emerges as a distinct subject with its own experiences.

The plot involves a young man called Caleb winning a competition and getting the chance to live on a remote location with his boss, Nathan, for a week.  Nathan is a CEO of a large tech firm called Bluebook.  He is incredibly talented, but also alternative and a bit wild. He is somewhat of a computer programmer’s life fantasy realized: so successful that can live on his own terms and create what he wants. One question that struck me was how Nathan could be a severe alcoholic, binging on spirits each night, but has the energy to create robots during the day; but I will leave that aside.

Shortly into the movie Nathan reveals to Caleb that he has not invited him to his estate for a holiday. He wants Caleb to be the human component in the Turing test. In essence, Nathan wants Caleb to spend a large amount of time with a robot he has created to determine whether at the end of the experience Caleb believes that the robot is capable of generating responses that are indistinguishable from a human.

Ex Machina is not just a philosophical investigation but also a thriller. Like any thriller, it builds tension with an unanswered question: in this case, whether Nathan is an evil, narcissistic lunatic, or if his creations are trying to manipulate Caleb for their own ends. It is this tension, and its eventual answer, which makes the movie emotionally as well as intellectually stimulating, and therefore likely to capture a large fan base and develop a cult following.

The conclusion the film makes is open-ended and non-judgmental. It points out the fundamental issue of creating a conscious being without the intention of allowing it to pursue its own ends. This applies to the mass slaughter and consumption of animals: they are conscious and have their own desires and sense of subjective awareness, but we farm and eat them.  In Ex Machina the robots look and act like humans therefore are far more likely to gain our sympathy: as narcissistic and speciest as that seems.

The film also questions the potential dangers of creating conscious beings that do not have the emotional capacities required for ethical interaction. This aspect of the film eventually plays a large role in the conclusion, but is not spelt out specifically throughout the movie, apart from the odd vague pearl of wisdom that is thrown around amongst the two men.

The film might also have benefited from having a female character in the movie that is not a robot: critics could view this as Ex Machina making a feminist statement. However, I do not think that was on the mind of the writer/director Alex Garland (author of The Beach). Ex Machina is an interesting philosophical examination but it also has male-fantasy type quality to it.

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