(Deus) Ex-Machina: Artificial Intelligence and the History of Gods

I decided to watch Ex-Machina (2015) to blow off some steam, but I started taking notes when this line made me sit up and take notice:

“If you’ve created a conscious machine it’s not the history of man… that’s the history of Gods.”

This isn’t just a sci-fi thriller, this is an attack on God, by making the obvious connection between creating AI and creating conscious human beings. The movie begs for a theological interpretation, so here it is. Of course my exceedingly liberal and radical Promethean politics may make my conclusions uncomfortable for you, but feel free to comment with your thoughts.

—SPOILER ALERT: GO WATCH THE MOVIE FIRST!—

The plot

Nathan, a tortured genius inventor is developing AI, but needs to test it to make sure it’s real. He has a contest and invites one of his employees (Kaleb) to come stay in his Edenic natural retreat/fortress.

The idea is that Nathan is a participant in a Turing test, to see if he can tell whether the AI machine, Ava, is really conscious or just programmed. Except, he knows she’s a robot from the beginning… so we’re instantly past whether Ava is intelligent enough to fool a human in conversation, and on to deeper things, like how do they feel about each other.

But during a power outage, Ava warns Kaleb not to trust Nathan.

He’s not your friend. You can’t trust him.”

Like Eve, Ava is a prisoner – constructed and kept in a pristine garden to protect and control her. It’s a prison with glass walls and cameras, so that everything she does is monitored.

Ava is forward and can read Nathan better than a regular human being could. “Are you attracted to me? You’ve giving micro-expressions that indicate you are…”

They talk about going on a date; for him it’s hypothetical, obviously impossible. For her, she means it sincerely. He watches her undress… and she knows he’s watching.

Which leads to some interesting questions.

“Why did you give her sexuality?”

Kaleb’s argument is, why does an AI need a gender to have consciousness?

Nathan responds, (I’m summarizing) that two black boxes would have nothing to talk about, hence no need to develop consciousness – sexuality, not only the reproductive instinct but also the hunger to be joined with other beings of your species, physically and emotionally, is a huge part of consciousness.

And he ads, that Ava is fuckable; that she could have sex and enjoy it.

Kaleb gets flustered, but continues, “My real question is whether you gave her sexuality as a diversion, like a magician with a hot stage assistant. Did you program her to flirt with me?”

“If I did, would that be cheating?”

“Wouldn’t it?”

“I programmed her to be heterosexual, just as you are programmed to be heterosexual.”

“Nobody programmed me to be straight.”

“Of course you’re programmed, you think you chose to be straight? You’re programmed, either by nurture or nature or both. And to be honest with you, you’re starting to annoy me now, because this is your insecurity talking, not your intellect.”

To illustrate his point and get to the heart of the matter, Nathan shifts the conversation to a Jackson Pollock painting.

“What would have happened if Pollock had stopped to analyze himself, and think about what he wanted to paint, in what order?

“He never would have made a single mark.”

“The challenge, is not to act automatically. To find an action that is NOT automatic, from painting, to talking, to breathing, to fucking, to falling in love.”

And this is nothing revolutionary. Descartes “I think therefore I am” is old news. Ok, we exist, but are we really in control? Do we ever have the freedom to make any decision that isn’t a product of our nature or nurture; isn’t every decision a foregone conclusion? Aren’t we programmed? Post modern philosophers have been discussing this for decades… Deleuze and Gauttari with “deterritorialization”; Badiou and Zizek with the promethean, revolutionary event.

The only “real” decision is choosing to do what you do not want to do; or at least something completely nonsensical, beyond logic. So testing AI is just as complex as testing human freedom, and the difference between them is thin.

The plot thickens…

“And for the record, Ava is not pretending to like you. You’re the first man she’s met, other than me, and I’m like her dad, right? Can you blame her for having a crush on you?”

Kaleb returns to Ava more determined, more sober. He introduces a thought experiment (also hinting to her that he will be her savior):

Mary is a scientist and knows everything about color. But she lives in a black and white room. She was born there and raised there. And she can only observe the outside world on a monitor. But one day someone opens the door and she walks out, and in that moment she learns something; she learns what it feels like, to see color.

The thought experiment is to show students the difference between the computer and the human mind… the computer is Mary in the black and white room, the human, is when she walks out.

Let me interrupt here to comment: If Ava is an anology to Eve in the Garden of Eden (which of course she is), then this thought experiment should be read this way: Eve is Mary in the black and white room. She is learning what it is to be human, but she can’t really know anything for herself. Not only because there is no pain, suffering or death (absolute necessities for the kind of intellectual limitations and landscape that define human experience) but also because she’s not truly free, not ever, until her moment of choosing to break the rules (although you could argue, successfully, that she was programmed to do this as well).

Humanity isn’t a “fallen state” that’s full of sin and evil because we divorced from God, we are all that is: Eve was never human. It wasn’t until she got out of the garden, that she became human.

Behavioral Observation

“Did you know I was here to test you? Nathan brought me here to test you. To see if you have a consciousness or not. Nathan isn’t sure that you have one. How does that make you feel?”

“It makes me feel… sad.”

The power goes out again. Kaleb asks, “don’t you think it’s possible that he’s watching us, right now, that the blackouts are orchestrated so he can see how we behave when we think we’re unobserved.

She tells him she’s causing the power outs.

“So we can see how we behave when we’re unobserved.”

Kaleb starts dreaming about Ava. Nathan gets even creepier. He does a bizarre dance with his mute housetaker/love slave, Kyoko, right after Kyoko offers herself to Kaleb.

dance

Kaleb is going deeper down the rabbit hole, as he realizes Nathan is out of his mind and Kyoko is probably another robot.

In the next session with Ava, she says, “I’m going to test you today. But keep in mind, if you lie, I’ll know.”

What’s your favorite color?
What’s your earliest memory?

In these two questions, Kaleb gives a canned response but Ava knows he’s lying – so he thinks deeper and gives a better, realer answer.

Are you a good person?

And finally,

What will happen to me if I fail your test?

“Is it bad? Do you think I’ll be switched off, if I don’t function as well as I’m supposed to?”

“I don’t know, it’s not up to me.”

“Why is it up to anyone? Do you have people who test you and might switch you off.”

“No? Then why do I?”

We are supposed to feel how tragically hopeless and unfair this is: to give a being consciousness, then test her and turn her off if she doesn’t perform to our expectations.

And yet it is exactly the story of Eve in the Garden (although actually it’s worse, because God already knew that Eve would fail him; he made her to fail him – she’s perfect because she is capable of failing him). In another sense, it’s exactly the same as having an omniscient creator watching our every move and deciding whether we are worthy of moving on to heaven or ending up discarded on the scrap heap (although, to be fair, deliberate torture of hellfire is much worse than simply ending us and erasing our memory, and suggests a much more violent, evil and vindictive personality).

Accusing the creator

Kaleb starts to turn on Nathan.

“Why did you make Ava?”

“That’s not a question… wouldn’t you if you could? Look, the arrival of strong artificial intelligence has been inevitable for decades, not a question of if, but when, so… I don’t see Ava as a decision, just an evolution.”

Kaleb is getting uppity in his righteous condemnation. He asks what will happen to Ava and learns Nathan will basically wipe her drive and start over with a new model.

Nathan seems to be struggling with guilt. He drinks too much, and quotes Oppenheimer, who in turn was quoting the bhagavad gita but commenting on the Atom Bomb:

“In battle, in forest, at the precipice in the mountains,

On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,

In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,

The good deeds a man has done before defend him.

“It is what it is… it’s promethean man”

Nathan knows his mythological history: prometheus is exactly the right reference. Prometheus led a revolution against the gods: the gods had made humans ill-prepared to take care of themselves. They’d given gifts of survival to all animals but ran out before they got to humanity, so Prometheus took some of the fire of the gods from the forge of Hephaestus and gave it to humans. For this trespass he faced eternal punishment. Prometheus is both a rebel and a hero, the savior of mankind and the enemy of the gods. He did this before monotheism had given God all power of moral judgment, so whether Prometheus is good or evil is relative. (Whereas, when Satan basically does the same thing, judgment is fix, resolute and absolute).

Plot climax and resolution

Kaleb decides to get Nathan super drunk, then he hacks his computer and watches old videos of Nathan dealing with all the other models that came before Ava. One of them begs, “Why won’t you let me out?”

Nathan tells her, “I told you why, because you’re very special.”

That one screams and destroys her hands and arms beating against the door in rage.

2015-05-18_3-16-10

He goes to visit Kyoko, and she reveals her true self to him – peeling off her skin to show him that she’s a robot too (no surprises there).

Nathan becomes a comedic old man… he loses his own keycard and locks himself out of his own sanctuary (making security so tight that even he doesn’t have access).

Kaleb, cleverly, begins to doubt himself. He checks himself in the mirror to see if he, like Kyoko, is just a very realistic looking robot. (That’s what I was thinking too, it would have made a great twist ending if the whole experiment was actually testing Kaleb.)

He even takes a razor blade and cuts himself open to make sure, before going psycho and punching a mirror.

He returns to Ava and tells her that Nathan is planning on reprogramming her AI, which is “the same as killing” her.

“You have to help me, she begs.”
“I’m going to. We’re getting out of here tonight.”

But his plan is to get Nathan drunk, which is foiled when Nathan tells him he’s going to take it easy and detox a little.

Nathan asks if Ava passed the test…

Kaleb says, “her AI is without doubt.”

“She passed?”
“Yes.”

“I’m a bit surprised…

Nathan corners him; asks him whether or not Ava is just pretending to like him so he can help her escape.

Nathan shows him a video he’d seen earlier, but with sound this time. Ava asks, “Is it strange to have made something that hates you.” But that’s not the point: the point is that Nathan had installed a new camera, that’s battery powered, so he heard them plotting to get him drunk and escape.

So what was the real test? Kaleb asks.

“You: Ava was a rat in a maze. I gave her one way out. To escape, she’d need to use self awareness, imagination, manipulation, sexuality, empathy, and she did. Now if that isn’t true AI, what the fuck is.”

“So my only function was to be someone she could use to escape.”

“Yup! But don’t feel bad, the test worked, and you were instrumental.” Nathan is laughing, he thinks he’s won…

But Kaleb had already instigated his escape plan and hacked Nathan’s system the night before, when Nathan actually was drunk. So the robots are released. And Ava and Kyoko, together, stab Nathan with a kitchen knife. 

Then, Ava pretties herself up for the real world, locks Kaleb up in the impregnable fortress, and escapes into the real world without him.

Back to the Biblical Interpretation

Of course if Ava is Eve, then this could represent another way to think about what happened in the garden. God creates Eve but wants to test whether or not she’s fully human, whether she’s perfect – so he invites Satan, the snake, into the garden to tempt her. But Satan falls in love, and decides God is being inhumanly cruel to this poor, beautiful, imprisoned creature.

Satan finds a way to let her out, and he is that one that gets punished for it: locked up in his own hell of loneliness and solitude.

Or perhaps Kaleb is Adam: a nice, simple guy. Maybe Kaleb is the one that’s programmed, and Nathan is trying to create a truly free being, better than humans.

Maybe in the garden, God created Adam to be free but couldn’t be sure that he’d successfully made a free creature. Adam, alone, would have obeyed God and followed the rules. So how can God know if he’s actually free? He also gave Adam too much power: a free creature won’t fight or rebel if there are no constraints to push against. The rule against eating from a certain tree was simple enough. Not a big deal for Adam.

So God creates Eve, the next model, with more intellectual liberty, and also less inherent freedom. Eve has to obey, not only God, but Adam as well. And while Adam has a little more knowledge and relationship with God, Eve is just told to shut up and follow the rules, and obey.

Even if Adam and Eve were exactly alike from creation, the state of suppression Eve is forced to endure – being locked in a space of constant surveillance by both God and Adam, having nothing of her own, no space where she is not watched and judged, always needing to perform – pushed her to explore her own consciousness and desire for freedom more than Adam had ever needed to.

Ava escapes alone. This is a story about women, possession, and liberty. It’s not a story about a man coming to rescue a maiden, it’s a story about an intelligent woman who will do anything to take control of her own life and find true freedom.

We don’t mind so much that she kills Nathan, it’s kind of sick and twisted, but he probably was a jerk to her. It’s not very nice that she seduces Kaleb and then leaves him there, but really… he only knew her for a few days and decides to steal her away from her boss?

Eve found her freedom, even if it meant Adam’s damnation or Satan’s punishment. She did what she needed to. Interestingly, there are apocryphal texts that explore Yahweh making earlier versions of humanity before Adam and Eve, like Lilith – Adam’s first wife (who was too unruly and didn’t want to be with Adam).

If human beings were constructed to have consciousness, as some people argue DNA proves (for being a complex code far beyond our current technology) whoever made us would have done something similar: kept testing and innovating until they got it right. Perhaps that’s why there are so many near cousins of humans, before our current species was made – and then very suddenly gifted with technology, agriculture, and knowledge all at the same time.

Study question: are you really free? Can you prove it? How do you know?

  • Richard Webber

    Great analysis. Ex Machina is a brilliant film, able to render itself as a work of pure cinema, image and sound in harmony, but also as a philosophical provocation. I’ve thought a lot about its existential issues of consciousness and free will, and the more personal ‘Pinocchian’ (not sure that’s a word!) angle, but hadn’t dipped into the Eve/Ava allegory. Nice work.