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.
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 Caleb fits the character mold of the typical nice guy; he comes across as withdrawn, considerate, and less than confident in comparison to Nathan, who embodies the brash dudebro archetype.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.