While the “deus” is missing from the title of Alex Garland’s incredible film “Ex Machina,” it figures prominently in its reflection upon the nature of artificial intelligence. Would the advent of conscious machines aid humanity—even save it—by leading to the kind of super-intelligence that we could harness to our own ends? Or would it mean the end of human beings, their replacement by creatures with godlike powers? If the former, the end of the human story is more like the deus ex machina of ancient Greek drama, a plot device in which divine intervention saves characters from an otherwise irredeemable tragedy. If the latter, it has more in common with the contrived ending to which the phrase now generally refers: radically incongruent with the events that have preceded it, to sinister effect.
These alternatives might amount to the same thing. Perhaps it is not humanity that needs saving, but intelligence. Earth is a finite resource, and human lifespans ill-adapted to the scale of space-time. What is required then, is a smart new suit of armor, an immortal coil, to serve as a permanent vehicle for the universe’s improbable project of self-consciousness, once earth and flesh and even their cosmic center have long been displaced.
To eliminate the “deus” from “deus ex machina” is seemingly to sideline this question concerning the consequences of artificial intelligence in favor of the question of its possibility: to focus on whether consciousness could ever emerge out of a machine (a phrase evocative of the philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s criticism of mind-body dualism as involving a “ghost in the machine”). But then the question is how we could ever tell whether a machine is conscious, when computers are very good at producing simulations whose faithfulness implies nothing about their reality. The classic proposal for a method of making this distinction is the Turing Test, developed by computer scientist Alan Turing in his 1950 paper “Computer Machinery and Intelligence.” The test is premised on the notion that behavior is a good-enough criterion for sentience, and that if machines can “do what we (as thinking entities) can do,” then they must also be thinking entities. Consequently, we should be able to tell whether a machine has a mind simply by having a conversation with it: language is a complex enough phenomenon that a non-sentient machine would be easy to manipulate into producing a distinctively non-human response. A machine that consistently leads us to believe it is sentient—assuming we can communicate with it without seeing whether it is a machine or a human being—must in fact be sentient.
The plot of “Ex Machina” seems at first to revolve around just such a test. If it’s hard to imagine that a cinematic window into a Turing Test is an exciting way to spend two hours, consider first the exceptional good looks of your machine examinee. Ava is no “gray box,” as her inventor Nathan puts it, she has been endowed with a gender and with a body. Her embodiment is meant to make the test more challenging, according to Nathan, requiring the examiner to conclude that she is conscious even though he knows she is a robot. To that end, Nathan has left parts of Ava’s body visible and audible through a steel mesh: her mechanical entrails, as they blink and churn to some unknown effect; her synthetic bones and ligaments, as they move her limbs. With the exception of her brain, only Ava’s private parts are private—a telling concession to the fact that it is not just her consciousness that is at stake, but also the fact that she is an object for consciousness. As for her brain, it is enclosed in a shiny metallic skull, upon which her incongruously beautiful face seems to have been planted like an animated mask.
To our delight and eventual horror, the challenge of Ava’s embodiment involves not automatism but desire. Her body is designed not just to convince us that she is machine, but to convince us that machine bodies can be beautiful and desirable. This is a precursor to the conclusion that machines can be desirable as persons and, in turn, themselves capable of desire. And Ava-the-person is full of endearingly tentative desire: a poignant mixture of impassivity and expressiveness, awkwardness and grace. The way she moves has an air either of the robotic, or that of someone moving through life as if it were a ballet. Her conversation alternates between questions that sound like an online dating Web form—“is your status … single?”—to forms of raw connectedness that elude many human beings. She has a quality of cautious deliberateness, and yet frequently her face is a window to her emotional intensity (as if to say, “no mesh required”). In the end, she does not so much exist in between the mechanical and the human as inhabit both worlds simultaneously.
Is this the awkwardness of artificiality, or the awkwardness of a new form of childhood? Ava is perhaps just a precocious child: whatever the enormity of the knowledge programmed into her, she seems to lack experience, and to be not yet fully equipped to deal with being subject to the all-too-human phenomena of want and need. What we think we know for most of the movie is that she has very precipitously developed feelings for Caleb, the young man Nathan has tasked with testing her. Without the excuse of being aged “one,” he falls for her just as quickly.