Ex Machina

Ex Machina


Howard Adelman

What a surprise to have two movies two years in a row with Alan Turing as a central figure. In last year’s Oscar nominee, The Imitation Game, Alan Turing himself, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, was the star. This year, Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland, has as its central plot device an application of Alan Turing’s test, a mental game intended to differentiate human from artificial intelligence. The Imitation Game is an application of the Turing Test. Robots can purportedly imitate the human mind; they cannot replace or displace it.  My son has been urging me to see the movie for the last 4-6 weeks. (He saw it when it first opened.) Last night we finally went. He insisted it is a marvellous film, and it is.

For Turing, an artificial intelligence could imitate human thinking and even surpass it in certain respects – in the movie, by acting as a polygraph test to differentiate a true statement from a lie. Though a machine could imitate the motions of our bodies, including mouthing words, in Descartes’ words, a human intelligence could still be distinguished from an artificial or machine intelligence by two measures. First, machines would be unable to put words together to express thoughts. But, as we now know, they already do. An artificial intelligence can currently string words together to answer questions posed to it. Secondly, machine thinking is supposed to be incapable of plotting and foresight that would enable it to initiate actions. But we now know we can have driverless cars that can respond to threats of accidents much faster and better than humans. In other words, Descartes’ preview of the Turing Test was easily surpassed.

The Turing Test proposed even more stringent criteria as variations of the Cartesian ones. That the test set forth more systematically the determination of the logically sufficient conditions so that one can claim that a machine exhibits the attributes of a mind, of thought and intelligence. The movie takes the test one step further and seeks to determine whether a robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander) a) can think outside the box, and b) is capable of emotional intelligence. I will not give the movie away by simply saying that somehow, in establishing that Ava’s brain can think outside the box and that she also has sufficient empathetic emotional judgment to understand the motives behind a person’s intelligence, she is also revealed to have the ability to exploit that capacity for her own ambitions. In passing that test with flying colours, the humanoid proves it can imitate the language and performance games of the world’s greatest, and most nefarious, minds. Further, though there are action scenes near the end, the movie largely consists of talking heads as Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) interviews Ava in a series of seven interview sessions to ascertain whether she can pass and even surpass the Turing Test.

Like the spy thriller, The Imitation Game, the movie depends for its grip on the audience, not on unravelling the intellectual puzzle, but on secrecy and deception, betrayal and determining whom to trust. Instead of taking us backwards in time, this sci-fi flick thrusts us forward into the future. The Imitation Game had a somewhat trite message: “Sometimes, it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one imagines.” Ex Machina has a variation on that theme: sometimes it is the machines one creates through one’s imagination that can end up performing actions that very few can imagine, but still not be able to translate that imaginative ability to enable one to predict behaviour and control that behaviour by appropriate preventive measures.

Ex Machina begins on the floor of a dot.com company, Ludwig Enterprises, named after Ludwig Wittgenstein. The opening scene is focused on one programmer mesmerized by his screen as he searches to see who won the lottery. The lottery, as it turns out, is not one where one buys a ticket and hopes for a big monetary win. Instead, it is an intra-company lottery of the Ludwig Corporation, the world’s largest and most powerful search engine company. Wittgenstein in his second coming taught that philosophy was about analyzing language as performance with performance itself reflected in language. For what humans think and believe is always expressed in what they do and how they perform. The challenge for philosophy was not to unravel the mysteries of the universe but to analyze language to unravel the roots of a conundrum.

The company is owned by a genius, the reclusive Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). The lottery prize: a week with the owner at his estate. Caleb, the programmer in the opening scene, lands via a helicopter after flying over the estate for the previous two hours. Caleb is told by the pilot that he is forbidden to land his helicopter any closer; what goes on at the estate is highly secret. In this valley between mountain ranges, Caleb is instructed to walk the rest of the way by following the river.

He arrives at a place that soon turns out to be an exaggerated version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, with its exceptional setting astride a beautiful waterfall, but with  a claustrophobic very modernistic interior. Though the living room and kitchen have beautiful views of the outdoors, Caleb’s bedroom is an electronically locked windowless room. Fallingwater’s philosophical premise had been that people were creatures of nature, hence, architecture was required to conform to nature and, hence, reveal and express what is basic in people. But the estate in Ex Machina was designed to prove that man was not confined to natural laws, but could master those laws to build an artificial intelligence that could surpass all that nature had to offer. So at once a paean to Fallingwater, Nathan’s estate in Ex Machina is a direct perversion and inversion of Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy.

When we finally meet Nathan, the owner of Ludwig Enterprises and of the estate, though he is a nerd par excellence having discovered the code at age 13 that allowed him to create the best and most powerful search engine ever, he is not anything that we expect. He works out with a punching bag, drinks like a fish and refuses to techno-speak and instead swears like a trooper and explores the meaning of Jackson Pollock’s art like an expert. He greets Caleb like a host inviting a friend to spend a week. Nathan in the film sets Caleb the task of learning whether Ava, the humanoid he created, has achieved self-consciousness and has passed the Turing Test.

In reviewing and writing plays as a callow youth, I learned to be very wary of the use of a deus ex machina (DEM), an arbitrary and artificial device introduced unexpectedly into the plot of a drama to overcome a problem. Deus ex machina, however, has an equivocal meaning. On the one hand, as in this dramatic sense, DEM means a divine intervention in the natural flow of events to disrupt that flow. It is artifice without art. On the other hand, the phrase literally means turning a machine into a god, that is, extracting the divine out of a machine. The movie Ex Machina plays on both meanings, but without reference to an interruption from outside the natural order, from the divine, as it were, or that the divine is being extracted from a machine, just a superior human but without shame or guilt. The film is about man playing God and turning what he creates into a being that surpasses man in terms of both rational and emotional intelligence, particularly in using rational intelligence to exploit emotional intelligence.

In Greek drama, the use of a deus ex machina was not proscribed. Quite the contrary. In many of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, especially the latter, a god suddenly appears, usually near the end of the play, as a convenient method of overcoming a conundrum. The intervention is improbable, unexpected and contrived, usually to restore order to a situation that is quickly dissolving into chaos.

Modernity was antithetical to any use of a deus ex machina. All puzzles were soluble without resorting to divine intervention. In modern philosophy, particularly in the works of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, there is an explanandum, that which requires explanation, and an explananda, that which provides the explanation for the action or event in question. In my PhD thesis, I offered two apparently opposite cases of such a logic. On the one hand was the positivist thesis, Carl Hempel serving as my exemplar, that explananda had to conform to a lawlike structure that allowed the explanandum to be deduced from the explananda when combined with the particulars of the case, if not with certainly, with great probability. On the other hand, in the idealist thesis, associated with R.G. Collingwood, but my exemplar was the philosopher of history, Bill Dray, the explananda was not a law-like proposition as found and used in science, but a proposition with the character of an imperative.  The generality was about what to do, not about what is.

Instead of, “If Li, L2, L3…Ln (set of laws) and C1, C2…Cn, a set of particular circumstances, in which the conclusion followed with a certain degree of probability, a historical explanation conformed to a quite different and distinctive model, beginning with hypothetical imperatives, (If I1, I2…In – a set of hypothetical imperatives – and C1, C2….Cn – a particular set of circumstances, then it naturally followed that “the thing to do” was x, x being the explanandum, not the probability that the event would take place, but the need to do what one’s thinking prescribed. In one, the model of explanation in history following the ideal of science. In the other, the model followed the format of moral reasoning.

But both models insisted that the explanandum could be deduced from the explananda.  I argued that history, even in the examples both philosophers offered, was not about explaining actions or events but about explaining and unravelling puzzle, conundra and incongruencies. The two philosophers did not envision that history is really and most fundamentally about the dialectical interplay of reason and emotion, of scientific detachment and emotional empathy, something which the movie grasps for that is the interplay between Nathan who lives in a fantasy world of women made to serve men’s needs and the naïve Caleb who has retained his sense of pity and empathy.

No deus ex machina was permitted in either model. Hence, the publication that followed was entitled the Hempel-Dray theory, arguing that the two main competing models of explanation in history had more in common than the stark differences that they appeared to have. Both ruled out the intervention of accidents or the significance of chance or contingency, on the one hand, or divine intervention on the other hand.  The philosopher Louis Mink, who edited History and Theory, wrote to me and joked that anyone who had the audacity to put a hyphen between the great philosophic opponents in the philosophy of history, Carl Hempel and Bill Dray, deserved to be published just for the chutzpah exhibited.

In the history of modern philosophy, Leibniz accused Malebranche of resorting to a deus ex machina (Psychophysical Parallelism and Pre-established Harmony). However, Leibniz was never self-conscious that his presumption – that the laws of mind and of moral reasoning conform to the laws of nature and are in harmony with them – was itself a form of deus ex machina. Instead of abandoning arbitrary interventions, his whole philosophical position rested on a mammoth one, that God programmed the world to have a pre-established harmony between the psychic and physical worlds.

In the movie Ex Machina, God is not present. There is just Nathan, the owner of the largest and most probing search engine in the world. His company has evidently made him fabulously wealthy. But he is not satisfied. He wants to use that massive data to create a humanoid that could do anything a human can. And more – such as “mind reading” and being able to tell when a person is lying. The humanoid is thus, on the one hand, a supernatural being since that humanoid does not belong to the natural world, but that humanoid is also a product of human evolution and not an intervention from outside.

The rationale for bringing into existence such a creature as this humanoid is simply the proposition that if man is capable of bringing to birth such a being, that is the very opposite of a robot for it can determine both its own thought processes and its actions, then it is his obligation to do so. As a scientist he is governed by that imperative. What can be done should be done. This is, of course, the inversion of a moral imperative that begins with what one should do in general to conclude what should be done in a particular situation. The inversion of moral reasoning is like Leibniz’s perversion of natural reasoning in extremis. This inversion is as arbitrary as the use of a deus ex machina inserted into the natural order. Therefore, the plausibility of the movie depends on the importation of two deus ex machina maxims, pre-established harmony of the mind and body and the inversion of the moral order to derive an imperative.

There is a third element of the movie that draws on the arbitrary and the inexplicable. The movie explains why Caleb, the programmer chosen from Nathan’s company in a “lottery,” has been chosen by Nathan to test the applicability of the Turing Test for determining self-consciousness, but we are left bereft of any explanation of why Nathan set out on such a course to create such a creature, especially since he was clearly bright enough to know that if he succeeded, mankind was doomed, a propositional belief that clearly weighed on him and drove him forward into a chaotic inverted world in which Nathan could certainly adumbrate but, in spite of all his efforts, he could do nothing to prevent what he himself had foreseen.

But the deus of deus ex machina, though omitted from the title, is present in a multitude of other ways. For the movie is not just a rich exercise in the scientific world of artificial intelligence, but it is full of false clues, diversions and distractions, much like any good detective story or magical performance. And it is self-consciously so and rich in biblical references beginning with the meaning of the name “Nathan,” namely God has given. Nathan in the film is a seer, one who predicts the future even though the very future he predicts and helps bring about will be the source of his own undoing.

Nathan is the prophet that told King David that that he should do whatever was in his mind, advice which David and Nathan in the film followed, but divine intervention told Nathan that even though David dreamt of building the temple, that would have to be left to King David’s successor to the throne. Who would be that successor became the battle within King David’s court. Nathan in the film also operates through flattery, telling Caleb, a seemingly everyday nerd, that he is quotable.

Caleb, the second major male character in the film is, like Kaleb, the son of Jephunneh of the tribe of Judah, one of the twelve spies sent to assess the desirability and feasibility of  Moses entering the promised land. In the biblical account, Kaleb is the only one of the ten spies who reports back and recommends conquest. In Numbers, Kaleb (30:13) tells Moses to move swiftly and conquer the land. Caleb is determined to resolve the version of the Turing Test that Nathan sets him, but in setting out on that path he develops an agenda of his own that he believes, or pretends to believe, is private to himself for he has already figured out that Nathan was watching and listening to both him and Ava even when there were power outages.

The third major character is the humanoid, Ava. In the Bible, she is someone who overturns the existing order and turns it into ruins. So when we hear the names of the different characters, we already know the outcome. The mystery will be how we get there. And this slow-moving film is mostly a talking heads account in which Caleb ostensibly interviews Ava to see if she passes the Turing criteria. In the Bible, Kaleb desperately desires to get into the promised land and Nathan dreams of enabling King David to build his temple to the divine, but, as we shall see [spoiler alert], it is Ava who makes it. Her emotional intelligence as well as rational intelligence proves to be superior and more sophisticated than that of either Nathan or Caleb. More importantly, her ability to use both reason and emotion to deceive is more powerful that either of the men’s. She is a supreme example of the femme fatale. Judith Merril would have been delighted with this movie for it is sci-fi at its best, a simple idea in which every scene follows with logical consistency but nevertheless rarely fails to surprise and delight.

The technological effects to produce the costuming and soundtrack match the claustrophobic cinematography except when, in rare moments, the characters get out into the fresh mountain air. The play between transparency – seeing Ava’s leg bones and silver metallic mesh skull to which her face is attached  – and the cover-up as Ava increasingly dresses as a full human, is just superb. The transparency reveals itself to be the highest kind of deception. Even Kyoko, Nathan’s sex fantasy of a dumb and deaf woman made flesh, played by Sonoyo Mizuno, is the opposite of how she appears. Dialectics have rarely had a better treatment.

Like history, this movie is not basically about a series of actions or events, but, like a very good puzzle, an unravelling of a conundrum, of an incongruency between two approaches. The acting could not be better. Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb shows just the right balance of naiveté and intellectual sophistication. Oscar Isaac as Nathan demonstrates the right combination of boyish enthusiasm and a brilliant but gamey mind. And Alicia Vikander as Ava is mesmerizing and anything but robotic.

It is a brilliant film with a brilliant cast clothed in the most imaginative scenery and subdued technical effects.