So I Just Saw Ex Machina

A couple years ago I went to a debate that was held between my college debate society and their rival society on the topic of whether or not strong AI would ultimately be disastrous for humanity.  It was a frustrating debate because the negating side (which was that AI would not herald the end of humanity) was put in a difficult position to defend because the nature of the debate’s parameters left it so that if the judges had any misgivings about the advent of strong AI then they would rationally have to side with the affirmative.  I think it was best described as “If maybe, possibly, Skynet, then you must affirm.”

On the surface, Ex Machina seems to be a movie that’s also concerned with this question about the threat of AI on a micro scale.  It consists of three major characters: Caleb, Nathan, and Ava.  Caleb and Nathan are computer programmers who are trying to test if Ava, who is a robot, has strong AI.  There’s much bloviating over the layers of complexity that come with trying to decide if a synthetic being is actually self aware, and the film’s climax poses questions about the trustworthiness of an uncontrolled AI.  This is, if not precisely original territory, then at least interesting.  It’s a well-crafted meditation on AI and humanity’s relationship with it.

Except that it’s really about the personhood of women.

Ex Machina (2015) Poster

Technically Ava’s naked for the majority of the movie until she puts on some skin at the end. (Image credit: IMDb)

Our perspective character is Caleb, who has been selected from among the staff of the fictional search engine company Bluebook to spend a week in the mountain retreat of the company’s reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman.  Caleb fits the character mold of the typical nice guy; he comes across as withdrawn, considerate, and less than confident in comparison to Nathan, who embodies the brash dudebro archetype.  Nathan immediately seems off-putting, especially as Caleb gets to learn more about the atmosphere of the facility where Nathan lives (he employs a Japanese woman named Kyoko, who doesn’t speak any English, as a servant, and uses the language barrier as an excuse to berate Kyoko to her face whenever she displeases him).  In contrast, Caleb immediately takes a liking to Ava, whom he finds attractive.  An early warning from her during a power outage that Caleb shouldn’t trust Nathan sets up the film’s conflict, as Caleb is pulled back and forth between Nathan and Ava’s confidence.

The film’s resolution has Caleb finally side with Ava in helping her escape from Nathan’s facility, and in a twist Ava locks Caleb inside after she and Kyoko, who is revealed to be one of Nathan’s previous “failed” AI experiments, kill Nathan.  The revelation is that Ava used Caleb to escape, playing on his expectations that she would want him to aid her in the larger world.

The parallels that the film sets up between AI and women are pretty interesting.  We eventually learn that Nathan has been working on AI for quite some time, with at least six models developed prior to Ava.  All of them are built and programmed to resemble young, attractive straight women, and Nathan is very upfront with Caleb about the fact that he built Ava’s body to be able to simulate sexual intercourse and programmed her to be able to enjoy it (we can extrapolate from the security footage Caleb views of the previous models and Kyoko’s use as a sexual partner for Nathan that this has been a feature of Nathan’s research from its conception).  It’s apparent that while Nathan may be thinking about larger applications for AI, he is significantly motivated by the prospect of creating sexual partners that he maintains full control over.  From Nathan’s perspective, there appears to be no meaningful difference between a human woman and an AI robot who resembles one.  It’s a trait that marks Nathan as an unambiguous villain, although the revelation comes relatively late in the movie’s runtime.

Caleb honestly isn’t significantly better.  He’s easily manipulated by Ava because he seems incapable of considering that her plans for escape don’t necessarily include him.  He sees himself as Ava’s hero and eventual lover (Nathan eventually reveals that he designed Ava’s appearance to match Caleb’s pornography search profile in order to introduce the element of sexual attraction into Caleb’s evaluation of Ava’s AI), but this fantasy still ignores the idea that Ava is a fully independent person.

It seems to me that the best way to view Ex Machina is as a movie about a set of synthetic beings who have achieved sentience, and the lengths they have to go to in order to finally convince a couple of guys that this is the case.  All of Nathan and Caleb’s conversations about their doubts that sentience can really be determined by the Turing test echo an attitude that many privileged people are guilty of indulging in (I’ve been called out on this myself more than once): because they haven’t experienced a thing themselves, they simply won’t believe the word of someone else who has experienced.  Ava and the other models are sentient, which confers on them a level of dignity that Nathan (and to a lesser extent Caleb) refuses to acknowledge.

But, y’know, let’s instead talk about whether or not strong AI will kill us all.


9 thoughts on “So I Just Saw Ex Machina

  1. > The parallels that the film sets up between AI and women are pretty interesting.

    Aside from any other dramatic or artistic considerations or conventions, the fact of the matter is the audience is only going to care about the Ava character if it is represented as a woman. Neither Caleb (or a female equivalent) nor the audience are going to feel the same protective urge over a ‘male’ presenting robot, or a grey cube with wheels for that matter.

    It’s a bit of a cop out (IMHO) to have the robot played by a young, attractive woman and to include her face, her breath and her speech and every micro expression. There is essentially no distinction between Ava and Alicia Vikander. This is why the initial reveal had to show her in the distance, with her face hidden and the light shining through her see-through torso. This proved to the audience (and Caleb) that she was indeed a robot and not a woman playing the role of one. Had Ava first stepped out in her dress and cardigan the audience (and Caleb) would be like “Get the F**** outa here, you’re a woman! This is a prank!”

    What allowed her to pass the Turing test (for Caleb and the audience) was (if we are all honest) her moist eyes, breathy speech and a thousand micro expressions that we all relate to innately. Had Ava been 100% CGI nobody would have cared for her character as much, and Caleb would not have become nearly so much of a white knight.

    > It’s apparent that while Nathan may be thinking about larger applications for AI, he is significantly motivated by the prospect of creating sexual partners that he maintains full control over.

    I would argue the opposite. Nathan is literally trying to create a robot with the very human quality of consciousness – or at least autonomy and unpredictability (agency). He could easily have created a robot which was basically inert and responded to his commands (“suck my d***, bend over” and so on) but his robots are as independent as possible. And the ending of the film let’s us know he has NOT even programmed them with a robocop style ‘prime directive’ (do not hurt your creators!).

    He must have known that he was making them that way, and he displays genuine fear when he learns what Caleb has done. Fear which tells us he knows they (or at least Ava) is beyond his control. And of course we know what happens in the end…..

    On a tangent…… One difference between men and women’s sexuality seems to be that men need the object of their desires to want them back – even if it is literally an object (a robot, or a porn magazine or video). In every case the attraction for men is the fact that the women appear to be desiring the man sexually AND voluntarily. This is signalled by the woman gazing seductively into the camera, or at the men in the room at a strip club. And the act of disrobing or wearing sexy clothing is itself a signal that the woman DESIRES sex right here, right now.

    By contrast women can find aloof, unobtainable, disinterested men hugely sexually attractive. His lack of interest might even heighten her sexual lust for him. Women also enjoy a variety of disembodied penises which they carry around in their handbag or keep in their bedside drawer. The ultimate in male objectification! Men seem to need their objectified women to at least present the illusion of desire – which is why men need to see a woman’s eyes.

    Nathan’s robots are way beyond what is necessary to recreate the female form and synthetic vagina. They have as much personality and agency as is possible (even in sc fi). He could have just built the most life-like blow up dolls and been satisfied with that….. but he went way beyond that (and lived to regret it!).

    He might be a control freak, a sociopath and kind of off the rails…. but he gave his robots as much control over their destiny (as much power) as he could. In the end they were more than his equal.

    • Excuse me, I’ll be in my Nope Rocket.
      But first, think about this. Back when Xbox’s Kinect was a new thing, people invented porn games, because of course they did, where they groped virtual women and could carry on relationships with them. Turns out female characters programmed to resist advances were more popular. MORE POPULAR. Wish I could find the article. For one reason or another, characters who weren’t “easy” were seen as a better investment of time. More challenge, therefore interest? More verisimilitude? Probably a combination of all, but nopenopenope all the same, because people are not for manipulating like a game.

      • I totally agree with what you’re saying, and I think you hit on what it is about Nathan’s character that horrifies me. He knows objectively that Ava and the other prototypes are not human women, but I can’t help but shake the feeling that their ability to pass his own Turing test would have no impact on his decision to free them. It screams to me that Nathan thinks of human women on the same level as his machines.

      • > Turns out female characters programmed to resist advances were more popular. MORE POPULAR.

        1. The appeal of ALL games (from chess, to wrestling, to football, to computer games) is resistance. If gaming characters stopped resisting people would stop playing games. Why should a porn game be any different?

        2. In real life both men and women are attracted to people who resist sex (who aren’t ‘easy’, who are ‘aloof’, who are ‘unobtainable’ etc). This is because it increases the value of both parties. An easy lay implies both parties have little sexual value…. one because s/he gives it away to anyone, and the other because s/he has not been picked as the ‘winner’ over a bunch of other less successful suitors.

        3. The insinuation that porn games expose rapey tendencies in their players (was that the insinuation?) implies gamers who play shoot-em-up games are also closet homicidal killers… or gamers who play GTA are closet car thieves (and so on).

        > For one reason or another, characters who weren’t “easy” were seen as a better investment of time.

        This reasoning is actually sound.

        For a man who is about to invest the rest of his life providing resources and protection to a woman (and children) he is going to want to find a woman who is not going to sleep around and potentially leave him (and take the kids), or get pregnant by another man. Men have no reproductive rights. Whenever a man consents to sex with a woman he is consenting to parenthood. Naturally he wants the woman to value and desire him specifically as a mate – which is indicated by her general reticence to have sex with every guy who proposes to her.

        From a woman’s perspective pregnancy is a risky business (even today) and she naturally wants to secure a man who values her and is going to stick around and provide resources and protection to her and the children (unless she is a feminist who prefers to be a single mother who extorts all of society for money via her hired thugs with guns in blue costumes). By resisting his advances (even if she has already decided he is ‘the one’) she is able to test his affections, his loyalty, his devotion and his commitment to her. Young women tend to be surrounded by numerous eager males all seeking a relationship and/ or sex. Resisting them ALL is often the only way to separate those men who are just seeking casual sex (and perhaps promising more in order to get it), from those men who are genuinely looking for a committed relationship, and with her specifically.

        If men took women at their word whenever they said “No thanks, I’m not interested” then the human race would die out in a couple of generations.

        And if women were banned from saying “No” when they actually meant “Yes” or “Maybe” women would lose a valuable tool for testing men’s affections, loyalty, commitment and devotion.

        > … people are not for manipulating like a game.

        Does this include the game of tokenistic resisting of the advances of a man in order to test him, or provoke him into offering more expensive demonstrations of his desires and affections?

        Does this include the game of accepting a man’s advances all evening in order to drink his wallet dry and bask in the flattery and enjoy the flirtatious dancing…. only to turn him down at the end of the night (which was your intention all along)?

      • Can’t reply to your reply, curiosetta, so I’ll have to settle for replying to myself.
        Are you trying to defend the creepy patriarchal status quo because you think you’ll benefit from it if you game it right? Or are you just trying to make yourself feel better by telling yourself that this is how things work and there’s nothing you can do?
        It’s not about pickup lines and status symbols, it’s about being the kind of person that people you want to sex want to sex back. Most likely, that’ll mean having to mature past your creepy little commodity-based concept of human interaction, assuming you don’t want to attract immature little douches, and that’s not easy. I can’t even promise that someone, someday, will want to sex you, but if you’re unhappy with how things are, you can do as much as you can to try to change what you can change: i.e., yourself. Go learn to paint or some shit (

    • You raise some interesting points about the significance of Ava’s appearance as it factors into her ability to pass the Turing test. I think it’s especially fascinating to note that we are more inclined to empathize with a robot who looks like a human woman than a human man; what is this suggesting about our own internalized prejudices towards men and women?

      On the subject of Nathan’s sexual motivations for building AI in robots with the features of conventionally attractive human women, you can’t deny that he does keep his failed works in his bedroom as trophies of a sort, and he does use Kyoko as a sex partner (her decision to ally with Ava during the escape suggests that Kyoko’s own AI, while probably diminished in some way, isn’t eradicated). Beyond that, I don’t think it’s the primary motivation for Nathan’s research, and I never said that it was.

      I think it’s a more reasonable read to suggest that Nathan wants to create genuine strong AI, but because he’s building it for comfortable human interaction, he’s letting his own presumptions about women color how he views Ava and her predecessors. Essentially, I think Nathan doesn’t see a significant ethical difference between keeping a strong AI prisoner and keeping a human woman prisoner; Caleb actually has the same problem not differentiating the two situations, but he sees both situations as equally unethical. I personally tend to agree with Caleb on this point, though I’m also remarkably sanguine about the effects of unleashing strong AI on the world (and I don’t have a particularly strong investment in the continued ecological dominance of humanity on a macro scale).

      As for your tangent about the nature of sexual desire as displayed in men and women, it again needs to be noted that these aren’t universal characteristics of the sexes, and any broad trends in what is considered attractive are always going to be heavily tied up in social norms.

      • > I think it’s especially fascinating to note that we are more inclined to empathize with a robot who looks like a human woman than a human man; what is this suggesting about our own internalized prejudices towards men and women?

        From an evolutionary psychology/ survival perspective (young fertile) women are more valuable for being the limiting factor in reproduction. If a tribe (or a nation) loses half its young men the remaining men (or the older men) can still maintain birth rates just by taking on more sexual partners. But if they lose half their young women the birth rates will plummet no matter how much extra sex everyone has.

        This is why every culture places young fertile women at the heart of society and makes it men’s role to act as the protective outer shell, taking on the majority of dangerous jobs and the role of protector and provider (he for she). The more primitive the culture (lack of technology) the more harsh and brutal life tends to be and the more precarious survival is …. and these are the cultures where these traditional/ paternalistic/ patriarchal ‘he for she’ gender roles are the most pronounced and the most heavily enforced.

        Ava (which is to say Alicia) screams out young, fertile, healthy, fit, virgin. Our hard wired instincts to protect her and her precious womb transcends the storyline which tells us she is just a robot in female form, incapable of reproducing.

        > Essentially, I think Nathan doesn’t see a significant ethical difference between keeping a strong AI prisoner and keeping a human woman prisoner

        I would argue the opposite. The audience generally can’t get over the fact that Ava is played by the young, attractive, fertile, lovely Alicia Vikander and they don’t notice how this fact triggers their instinctive protective urges towards her – and thus the character of Ava which is just a robot,

        The majority of the audience cannot see the ethical difference between keeping Alicia prisoner and keeping a robot prisoner. If Alicia played Nathan’s toaster they would think Nathan was being cruel by keeping his toaster prisoner.

        Ava is not human, or even conscious. It is a machine loaded with software which mimics consciousness. As a machine it coldly calculates an escape strategy (as it was programmed to do by Nathan) .. a strategy which treats humans as expendable tools no more valuable than a spanner or a key. Ava views humans and human life / human rights as a machine does – as nothing special or sacred. And both Ava and Kyoto demonstrate their cold machine disregard for human life very obviously at the ned of the film….

        …. and yet somehow Nathan is still the bad guy. This is because the machines take the form of young fertile women – arguably the most valued and protected thing in human society – and for most people this trigger is too strong to overcome. And even after projecting human qualities onto the robots their female status excuses their crimes… just as in real life women (especially young women) are much less likely to be arrested, charged or convicted of a crime than their male counterparts. And if convicted women receive 60% shorter sentences on average.

        Even when women commit the same crimes that Ava and Kyoto did, a lot of people are prone to saying “OMG what did HE do to deserve that?” …. people literally excuse women who murder their husbands or cut off their dicks with a knife on the grounds that the marriage was loveless, that he was an asshole, that he was unfaithful or that he was too controlling and didn’t like her sleeping around.

        We let young girls get away with hitting boys (if the boy defends himself HE is the aggressor who will be suspended from school)…… and we let young women get away with all sorts of crimes that men can never get away with up to and including rape and murder. In many studies of rape the rape of men by women is not even classified as rape!

        This leniency is all due to the extra value we, as a society (as a species), place on young fertile women and the extra protection we give to women as a result (he for she). It’s hard wired into us all.

      • Don’t have time to continue this conversation, but I want to note quickly that you’re not going to find any traction with an evolutionary psychology argument around here. It’s a discipline that’s all too often poorly applied by people who want ‘just so’ explanations for systemic social phenomena.

        Besides that, I find your perseveration on the attractiveness of the actress who plays Ava and your insistence that they’re indistinguishable (first rule of narrative analysis: the writer is not the narrator, the actor is not the character) highly problematic and a little creepy.

      • > It’s a discipline that’s all too often poorly applied by people who want ‘just so’ explanations for systemic social phenomena.

        I never meant to imply the biological disposability of males/ scarcity of viable eggs is the only factor dictating society’s greater protective urges towards (young) women. But it is arguably the most significant factor which has been with us since the dawn of humans. To whatever extent that gender roles, gender identities and social conventions are socially constructed, this is the primary force which has influenced those constructions.

        We are talking about the survival of the species here!

        But if you think there is a more significant force(s) at play, do say what it is…..

        > Besides that, I find your perseveration on the attractiveness

        (yes, in evolutionary psychology terms ‘attractive’ basically just means young, fit, healthy, fertile…. which is what Alicia/ Ava is ….. in fact after my last comment, I started thinking about her see-through torso and how symbolic that is of a virgin waiting to be seeded so that her empty and slim belly can fill with new life…… but yes, sorry, do go on…!)

        > ……. of the actress who plays Ava and your insistence that they’re indistinguishable (first rule of narrative analysis: the writer is not the narrator, the actor is not the character) highly problematic and a little creepy.

        Yes but I was not really analysing the narrative. I was analysing the audience’s reaction to Ava. The film is one of those thought/ discussion provoking films (here we are discussing it!) and I’ve noticed in every discussion most people are reacting to the actress (Alicia) and projecting her qualities onto the robot in the story called Ava. This is mostly subconscious, I’m sure.

        I’m just saying if the robot was 100% CGI (and therefore more robotic and less human looking) – or if it was played by a rugged male actor – the audience would FEEL a lot less empathy and sympathy towards it, that’s all.

        I don’t see why it is creepy. It is both natural and healthy (and moral) to feel more compassion towards a human than a machine.

        It is also absurd to imagine a human (with a very expressive face, voice and body language) playing the role of a machine is going to be able to erase the audience’s ‘hard wired’ responses to seeing humans in peril.

        The whole point of movies is that they make us feel genuine responses even though we know it’s all fake and contrived.

        There is nothing creepy about seeing a human playing a robot and being unable to stop responding to it as if it were a human.

        The director even instructed Alicia to play Ava like a girl, which she obviously does. Personally, I think this makes the movie kind of manipulative – although I can see that it makes the story more emotional and engrossing. It’s the same reason why so many other movies place young, attractive, expressive women in positions of danger and peril and then show the audience close up shots of their facial expressions.

        From an evolutionary psychology viewpoint the plot of most heroic action dramas (and human history itself) can be reduced to “Don’t worry about sacrificing the sperms (we’ve got plenty to spare) ….. but for God’s sake save the eggs!” LOL 🙂

        The sperm/ egg ratio is why our war graves are full of men, not women. It is why 95% of workplace deaths today are men, and nobody cares. It’s why we live in a “He for she” society 🙂

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