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Artificial intelligence in recent films has showed incredible machines becoming more human: A.I., 2001, I, Robot, 2004, The Machine, 2013, Her, 2013, Interstellar, 2014. Ex Machina, directed and written by Alex Garland, is the latest of this genre. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a software geek who has won a lottery to spend a week with his employer, an eccentric inventor. Shortly after he arrives at Nathan’s (Oscar Isaac) remote retreat, Caleb learns that he has been selected to be part of an experiment to determine the conscious capabilities of Ava (Alicia Vikander), an artificial intelligent robot encased in an alluring female body.
During their sessions, Caleb and Ava chitchat, banter and even flirt with each other. Soon it becomes obvious that Ava is far more self- and environmental- aware than Nathan or Caleb can imagine. Caleb is captivated by Ava’s cognitive and emotive capacities. That visceral fascination soon morphs into sexual attraction. In their debriefings, Nathan probes Eva and Caleb’s feelings for the other. His erotic urges for Ava begs to ask: what is being human with a sensory body?
Ex Machina, from Latin’s deus ex machina, translates as god from the machine. In ancient Greece, a god is often introduced unexpectedly into a stage drama to contrive a solution for an otherwise insoluble problem. The initial intimation is that a mere man, as ingenious as Nathan is, has dangerously played a creator-god. Ava suggests a composite name from Adam and Eve. And his haven is Eden-like. By creating a sentient life form in Ava, Nathan has inadvertently implicated, without awareness or intent, her ontological consequences. In effect, the movie as a creation narrative explores the meanings, possibilities and implications of being human.
The Judeo-Christian traditions embrace the Biblical teaching that “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1.27) Theologians and Philosophers have parsed without agreement the meaning of divine image in humans. One tenet is clear, humanity is created to have self and relational consciousness. Nathan offers that a human possesses a unique consciousness that has at least five facets. Ava has imagination (for example, she is able to envision what freedom is like outside her confine); sexuality (she has a body with sexual awareness, urges, impulses and needs); self awareness (she is aware of her presence with Caleb); manipulation (she seeks to influence others and effect their choices); empathy (she is capable of perceiving, interpreting and sharing other’s feelings).
When Caleb confesses that Ava is fond of him, Nathan suggests with three possibilities. As an pseudo-human, she actually has feelings for him, or she doesn’t really like him but pretends that she does, or she fakes fondness to manipulates him. That is, beyond programmed responses, she actually has conscious capacity to relate to Caleb emotively as well as cognitively. Being human then, Ava is capable of intergrading what she has learned. With this knowledge, she realizes that she does not know certain things, that there are reasons why she loves or hates, that her body can enjoy sexual pleasure, that she wants something she may not have, that she may need to lie to protect herself or to control someone else. And she is capable of rebelling against the one who has made her.
Hmm. Ex-Machina provides an entertaining metaphor of the Genesis accounts of the creation of humankind and its latent possibility to rebel against its Creator. While entertaining us, the film explores the notion of being human: what does it mean to be human in mind and body, and what are the potentials and pitfalls of having a human consciousness.