Artificial Intelligence is slowly becoming a reality. Perhaps the Singularity is even next week. Sci-fi is filled with artificial intelligences that were born evil, turned evil, or had evil thrust upon them. A Memory in the Black, the second book in my sci-fi/cyberpunk series, introduces the A.I. known as Suuthrien. Whether or not Suuthrien is truly evil is just something you’ll have to wait and see about in A Dragon at the Gate, but the wonderful geeks Camela and Z.D. over at the Shadows of the Sound podcast invited me, along with another entity known only as Archangel, to discuss the concept of evil A.I., and things like what sort of loopholes can you find when determining what causes “harm” to us human-type meatbags.
A few weeks back I made a quick post about Ex Machina, a sci-fi film written and directed by Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd), declaring my interest after seeing the trailer. It’s still in limited release here in the United States, but tonight I got the lucky chance to see a free screening here in downtown Seattle attended by Garland himself.
After a young programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a company lottery to spend a week at the secluded home of CEO and tech genius billionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac), Nathan asks him to spend that week performing the Turing Test on the android Ava (Alicia Vikander) to determine whether she possesses true artificial intelligence. Isolated with a technological marvel and an intimidating eccentric monitoring his every moment, Caleb’s Turing Test swiftly enters uncomfortable territory.
Ex Machina is an excellent, thought-provoking, science fiction film that intrigues its audience as much with its atmosphere as with its ideas. From the beginning, through both the secluded setting and the subtle, unsettling undertones of Isaac’s portrayal of Nathan, an undercurrent of creepiness pervades the film. Nathan’s home is more research laboratory than a house. Keycards control access. Doors lock during intermittent, unexplained power outages. Caleb is not allowed access to the outside world due to the sensitive nature of Nathan’s work. Yet the film keeps the viewer off-balance with occasional–and well-placed–bouts of humor that both a) keep the tone from feeling so single-minded as to be tiring and b) accentuate the creepiness for the contrast.
Which isn’t to say that Nathan and his home aren’t the only sources of creepiness here. Vikander plays Ava with a charming, innocent seductiveness that draws Caleb and the viewer closer to her despite the unease of knowing that he’s interacting with…what? A machine pretending at being sentient, or an actual consciousness? And if the latter, then just what does that mean?
Ex Machina kept me guessing. Most of the time, I didn’t quite know where the film would wind up. It doesn’t telegraph its ending, and as the details of every step along the way unfolded themselves, rarely was it ever what I expected (save for once–and that’s not to say that’s a bad thing, either). It’s a bit of a mind-screw in a number of ways, which I won’t spoil here.
Furthermore, the film avoids clichés that one often finds in stories dealing with androids, A.I.s, and humans. It also avoids telling the viewer exactly what to think about what occurs, but rather presents itself and lets us decide what to think about it all. In fact, in a Q&A after the film ended, when asked what message he wanted audiences to take away from this film, Alex Garland responded that his goal was not to give a specific message but to start conversations, as the subjective nature of experiencing it could lead to many different points of view.