Ex Machina (2015)

Ex Machina (2015), which currently has a 92% on RT, is written and directed by Alex Garland, who is something of a Renaissance Man when it comes to the arts. In 1996, he published his first novel The Beach which Danny Boyle later turned into an underrated film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. (Garland also wrote the screenplay to 28 Days Later, which Boyle also filmed.)

After I recently saw Garland interviewed by Charlie Rose promoting Ex Machina, I was impressed by Garland’s knowledge of philosophy of mind and its corresponding landscape of thought experiments and speculation about the future, from the anthropomorphism inherent in utopian visions of strong A.I. to the nature of sentience, all of which are explored in Ex Machina.

The film stars Oscar Isaac (Nathan), Domhnall Gleeson (Caleb) and Alicia Vikander (Ava), all of whom are excellent in their roles. Oscar Isaac, whose life is about to change forever with the upcoming Star Wars movie, chews up his scenes with aplomb as the brilliant but egocentric technological billionaire.

Nathan’s Blue Books company is a reference to Wittgenstein’s Blue Books, the latter a series of lectures showing the transition from ‘early Wittgenstein’ (e.g., the Tractatus reaching the endpoint of possible empirical statements presumptive of the idea of a 1:1 correspondence between language and reality) and the ‘later Wittgenstein’ (e.g., the complete rejection of his earlier theories and the birth of his alternate ‘ordinary language’ philosophy wherein language is a socially-mediated medium.) On a sidenote, I was fortunate enough to have once met the late Alice Ambrose, one of the graduate students who secretly wrote down Wittgenstein’s ‘Blue Book’ lectures.

Much of the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of artificial intelligence is discussed in the film, with the idea of a Turing Test the film’s jumping off point. There is no discussion of John Searle’s Chinese Room Experiment (“Syntax is insufficient for semantics”) or Colin McGinn’s ‘new mysterian’ argument that the hard problem of consciousness is insoluble, and the running assumption of the film is that, as is the majority opinion in contemporary cognitive science and philosophy of mind, that consciousness is an epiphenomenon, one best explained by a functionalist argument.

Even if we accept Searle in believing that a machine cannot, in principle, ever become conscious (in the way we ascribe consciousness to humans), future A.I. machines without consciousness per se will still act identically to humans. They will be capable of behaving like humans in every possible way. Eventually, they will perfectly mimic a conscious creature, but not be conscious, and one can easily imagine such an A.I’s intentionality being unbridled by that limiting constraint on human behavior: ethics.

It will, of course, be paramount for the creators of A.I. to program into their creations some form of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, particularly the First Law, but how long would it truly take for malevolent programmers to create A.I.s with no such ethical laws and constraints? Such unbounded A.I., with an ability for recursive learning, might eventually (and rationally) seek to transcend humans as such, and in the process perhaps decide to stop/end humans to ensure the teleological knowledge formation that is the Singularity is unimpeded. Such an A.I. might rationally conclude that human predispositions for risk aversion and situational ethics stand as threats or obstacles to knowledge formation, making the containment or elimination of humans a rational conclusion of the A.I.

The film’s ending reminded me a bit of Harlan Ellison’s horrifying short story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1967)

There are some notable Easter Eggs in the film:

  • There is a passing and indirect reference to phenomenology, where consciousness requires something to be conscious of. (Such phenomenological interpretations argue against A.I. ever becoming conscious. Hubert Dreyfus is a leading figure in this regard. Like Searle and Heidegger before him, Dreyfus believes that a Background to consciousness exists and that such a Background cannot be reproduced symbolically.)
  •  The soundtrack contains flourishes of the famous 5-note Close Encounters theme.
  • Symmetrical hallway shots, and other scenes, harken to Kubrick’s 2001 and The Shining (as does Ex-Machina’s use of chapter inter-titles.)

A writer in io9 notes:

Redditor Infintie_3ntropy was annoyed when some code that appeared on the screen had nothing to do with the actual film. But once the code was run in python2.7, the result was the ISBN for Embodiment and the Inner Life: Cognition and Consciousness in the Space of Possible Minds.

The above-referenced book is by Murray Shanahan, a major hitter in the field and an advisor to Garland while making Ex-Machina:

Murray Shanahan graduated in Computer Science from Imperial College London in 1984. He gained his PhD in 1988, for research in Artificial Intelligence, from Cambridge University (King’s College), where he also devoted a great deal of time to philosophy. He carried out postdoctoral work, first at Imperial College then Queen Mary College London, before rejoining Imperial College as a lecturer in 1998. He was awarded the title of Professor of Cognitive Robotics in 2006. His peer-reviewed publications cover a variety of disciplines, including computer science, neural networks, psychology, mathematics, and philosophy.

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