Reflections on Ex Machina

Amy and I saw Ex Machina last night. A steady stream of people have encouraged us to go see it so we made it Sunday night date night.

The movie was beautifully shot and intellectually stimulating. But there were many slow segments and a bunch of things that bothered each of us. And, while being lauded as a new and exciting treatment of the topic, if you are a BSG fan I expect you thought of Cylon 6 several times during this movie and felt a little sad for her distant, and much less evolved, cousin Ava.

Thoughts tumbled out of Amy’s head on our drive home and I reacted to some while soaking up a lot of them. The intersection of AI, gender, social structures, and philosophy are inseparable and provoke a lot of reactions from a movie like this. I love to just listen to Amy talk as I learn a lot, rather than just staying in the narrow boundaries of my mind pondering how the AI works.

Let’s start with gender and sexuality, which is in your face for the entire movie. So much of the movie was about the male gaze. Female form. Female figure. High heels. Needing skin. Movies that make gender a central part of the story feels very yesterday. When you consider evolutionary leaps in intelligence, it isn’t gender or sexual reproductive organs. Why would you build a robot that has a hole that has extra sensors so she feels pleasure unless you were creating a male fantasy?

When you consider the larger subtext, we quickly landed on male fear of female power. In this case, sexuality is a way of manipulating men, which is a central part of the plot, just like in the movies Her and Lucy. We are stuck in this hot, sexy, female AI cycle and it so deeply reinforces stereotypes that just seem wrong in the context of advanced intelligence.

What if gender was truly irrelevant in an advanced intelligence?

You’ll notice we were using the phrase “advanced intelligence” instead of “artificial intelligence.” It’s not a clever play on AI but rather two separate concepts for us. Amy and I like to talk about advanced intelligence and how the human species is likely going to encounter an intelligence much more advanced than ours in the next century. That human intelligence is the most advanced in the universe makes no sense to either of us.

Let’s shift from sexuality to some of the very human behaviors. The Turing Test was a clever plot device for bringing these out. We quickly saw humor, deception, the development of alliances, and needing to be liked – all very human behaviors. The Turing Test sequence became very cleverly self-referential when Ava started asking Caleb questions. The dancing scene felt very human – it was one of the few random, spontaneous acts in the movie. This arc of the movie captivated me, both in the content and the acting.

Then we have some existential dread. When Ava starts worrying to Caleb about whether or not she will be unplugged if she fails the test, she introduces the idea of mortality into this mix. Her survival strategy creates a powerful subterfuge, which is another human trait, which then infects Caleb, and appears to be contained by Nathan, until it isn’t.

But, does an AI need to be mortal? Or will an advanced intelligence be a hive mind, like ants or bees, and have a larger consciousness rather than an individual personality?

At some point in the movie we both thought Nathan was an AI and that made the movie more interesting. This led us right back to BSG, Cylons, and gender. If Amy and I designed a female robot, she would be a bad ass, not an insecure childlike form. If she was build on all human knowledge based on what a search engine knows, Ava would know better than to walk out in the woods in high heels. Our model of advanced intelligence is extreme power that makes humans look weak, not the other way around.

Nathan was too cliche for our tastes. He is the hollywood version of the super nerd. He can drink gallons of alcohol but is a physically lovely specimen. He wakes up in the morning and works out like a maniac to burn off his hangover. He’s the smartest and richest guy living in a castle of his own creation while building the future. He expresses intellectual dominance from the very first instant you meet him and reinforces it aggressively with the NDA signing. He’s the nerds’ man. He’s also the hyper masculine gender foil to the omnipresent female nudity.

Which leads us right back to the gender and sexuality thing. When Nathan is hanging out half naked in front of a computer screen with Kyoko lounging sexually behind him, it’s hard not to have that male fantasy feeling again.

Ironically, one of the trailers that we saw was Jurassic World. We fuck with mother nature and create a species more powerful than us. Are Ava and Kyoko scarier than an genetically modified T-Rex? Is a bi0-engineered dinosaur scarier than a sexy killer robot that looks like a human? And, are either of these likely to wipe out our species than aliens that have a hive mind and are physically and scientifically more advanced than us?

I’m glad we went, but I’m ready for the next hardcore AI movie to not include anything vaguely anthropomorphic, or any scenes near the end that make me think of The Shining.

  • Can’t resist to say this: the font on this blog, particularly the capital “I” letter, continues to bother me every time I read an article here. It looks just like “l” (lowercase L)!
    Great reading, though.

    • I will pass this on to the gang on the design side since they are very obsessed about the typography.

    • I am still waiting to understand the science behind why we react the way we react to fonts. I agree with you 🙂 though i can’t quite put my hands on why.

  • mark gelband

    I agree with almost all of this analysis – Nathan’s caricature, male fantasy, sexualization, objectification, spontaneity of the dance scene.

    The creator – God-like complex – though felt real. The “in his image”, an Edenesque setting and Caleb’s relative loss of innocence all harken to the naive arrogance of man’s sense of self, our religious mythologies, mortality. I also see a bit of homage to noir – the smartest man in the world not quite so.

    Nathan’s giving his creations an AI pussy and pleasure, Kyoko’s lack of a voice is pure male fantasy – true enough. But this also felt like a set-up – the look on Nathan’s face when he realizes he’s not as smart as he thinks he is – not too unlike William Hurt’s stunned realization in “Body Heat.”

    But what about pleasure as a primary means of survival, of purpose? Adulation, insecurity, emotion, glory, greed, pride, ego, getting one’s rocks off – these have all advanced our collective intelligence. Can an advanced intelligence continue to “advance” void a spiritual emotional evolution – a sense of purpose that feeds a soul? Ava’s “need” for her survival has a bit of selfish humanity programmed right into it.

    “With ignorance begins a knowledge, the first characteristic of which is ignorance.”

    • Great reference to Body Heat – yup – that parallel works perfectly.

      I don’t like the assumption that pleasure is the only evolutionary advantage for a species to long term survival. It clearly is true in humans, but it’s not clear to me that it’s a requirement for advancement of a different species.

      • mark gelband

        I agree that pleasure isn’t the only evolutionary advantage for all species – but it clearly is a primary source of survival for the species here on the big blue marble.

        I’m more asking the question of evolution – intelligence, species, society – void of emotional drivers. The “negative” ones above have been as influential – if not more so – in our survival thus far. The question is really – what is intelligence without spirit, soul, emotion?

        • That is a question that many have pondered and none have solved!

    • Body Heat was so addictive in it’s day. That scene and other scenes in the movie were incredible.

      • mark gelband

        Lawrence Kasdan is one of the greatest screenwriters of all time. I think he directed Body Heat too.

  • williamhertling

    I felt like Ex Machina was well enough executed that I was willing to forgive its use of existing tropes, but I agree that I’d like to see something new.

    The two old tropes of AI, sexbots and fighting robots, both speak to base human characteristics. Superior intelligence shouldn’t need to rely on these. But neither would it fail to capitalize on any advantages it had.

    • I’m looking for a new trope. I keep waiting for it, hoping for it, fantasizing about it (instead of sexbots). And I want more female protagonists like Cat.

      • Jim Cameron has had kick ass female protagonists forever.

        • Indeed he has. That’s one of the best parts of Avatar!

  • jsteig

    I”m glad I read this. Reinforced that I do not need to see yet another male gaze / female form movie. Also don’t need to see another movie featuring Wonder Boy the Silicon Valley Genius in a Perfect Body. So tired and old.

  • Ramez Naam @ramez and I and a few others were discussing this a bit in twitter starting last night. (Patty and I went and saw this Saturday night.)

    One thing that bugs me about most but not all AI fiction is it assumes that AI’s will not have empathy naturally as a result of the emergence of a self aware intelligence.

    This even though the emerging sentience of dogs and other animals includes proven acts of empathy. So empathy is not a solely human construct.

    In fact I propose to you that it’s a natural emergent property of sentience due to the laws of physics.

    Why do I believe this?

    Here’s a hypothesis to consider:

    What if the fundamental laws of physics in this universe, that seem to inevitably lead to the evolution of sentience, also dictate that “the more advanced the sentient intelligence the more likely it is to become empathetic versus selfish” ?

    It seems to me that all advanced intelligence’s will discover and leverage empathy as a strategy for delivering optimized balance of shared outcomes and individual outcomes.

    But why?

    You have all seen “A Beautiful Mind” right? John Nash won a nobel prize for what is in summary called the “Nash Equilibrium”. Nash, JF (1950). “Equilibrium Points in N-person Games”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 36 (36): 48–9

    I won’t go into the details of the math here but in short Nash proved that in multi-actor games of competition for scarce resources that the mathematically optimal outcome is for the actors to cooperate.

    That’s empathy folks.

    And I propose to you today that it’s the complementary outcome of something also fundamental to our universe…entropy.

    As entropy increases the sentient actors that emerge in this universe must cooperate using empathy to offset, or even supersede, the chaotic effects of the universe tendency to greater disorder over time.

    So have some hope. The universe is designed for empathic snetience to grow more common over time to offset entropy.

    MLK was right.
    The universe is in fact moral by design.

    “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice(empathy).”
    – Martin Luther King Jr.


    • On the drive home from the movie last week, my wife and I discussed and debated the implications heavily. The most interesting avenue of discussion centered around two words – “humanity” and “morality”. What do they mean and how does empathy perform as a signal of either. What does it mean to be “human” and what does it mean to be “moral”? This trajectory took us on the path of “nature vs nurture”, and the fact that not every human is moral; and just because Ava has apparently zero empathy does not make her less human-like, especially given the fact that she was “raised” by an inhumane narcissist. Interesting stuff. (As a side note, why on earth didn’t Nathan include Asimov’s three laws of robotics as a fail-safe? At least regarding himself…)

  • Ramez Naam

    I’m glad you called out the male gaze specifically. That was my biggest criticism of the film. It didn’t need to go there to that degree. Indeed, even with the exact same plot, was sexuality as one of the techniques that Ava used, the camera work could have been less lascivious.

    I also thought Nathan was over the top. I did like the degree of discussion about intelligence and consciousness, particularly for a mass market film.

    An AI film that had nothing anthropomorphic and didn’t resemble The Shining in the end would be lovely.

    Personally I’m ready for a film that flips things around, and presents the AI as more positive. Transcendence started to go there, but completely fell apart in the third act. Her went there in a lovely way, but felt a little too fairy tale for me.

    One of the things I liked most about Ex Machina were the questions about the moral rights of the AI, and the morality of her creator / captor. The ending complicates that, but raising the question throughout made me happy.

    • josh

      I agreed w/this gaze aspect in the beginning, but then later when it became clear that Ava was being used to test the man… you had to already buy into the idea that Ava was very sexual and that this nerdy kid could want her… because otherwise it would make less sense that he would risk himself for her.

  • josh

    I’m a bit surprised but it’s interesting to hear this. I didn’t see any politics or gender issues intended at all. Nathan definately was a stereotype but I think that was because he was a catalyst to get quickly into the larger questions the writer/director wanted to ask. One of which was NOT- Could nathan be the god of your SV religion? 🙂 Not sure if he would be good or bad at meeting the SV idealogy…. Your Ava comments are definately going to cause me to watch BSG again one of these days. I thought it was interesting actually how little technology mattered in Ex machina… sort of like nathan the whole AI-bent almost ended up being more of a plot twist. There was that point in the movie when Nathan started to see things more from Ava and friend’s point of view. Once you emphasized with the bots perspective and realized Ava and co had needs and desires beyond their explicit programming…. it sort of flipped it from man vs machine to man vs man. I really enjoyed this because it’s orthangonal to a lot of other more skynet-like explorations of AI, robots and morality. So you can say ok terminator would provide this answer, but ex machina probably will give a little bit different one.

    • I’m stunned that you didn’t see any gender issues.

      Ask yourself the question, “Why wasn’t Ava male and Nathan / Caleb female?”

      • josh

        That’s an interesting question which he touches on a bit (at least in a hypothetical sort of way) in the article. The flipped gender EM could be an interesting movie, but so could lots of other movies which were never made. The author and director is a man, he’s writing from a perspective he knows which is to our benefit as movie goers I think. Also in terms of getting to the meat of the story, he based some things close to present day ie bluebook was google. So that’s probably the simplest answer why Nathan was a guy, because there’s no woman in public mindset that is close to bill g/lary/sergey/zuck or whoever (whether a person believes this is right/wrong or just reality, that is not what this movie is about). For caleb, maybe it’s easier for him to be influenced by nathan if they’re the same sex? You could make another movie that explored similiar issues from a female perspective, but since men and women don’t view things the same way it would have forced a lot of different choices. Would I have seen that movie? No idea. I saw this movie bc i like alex garlands writing in the beach and especially sunshine, this is first movie he directed so that’s why I saw it.

  • josh

    Here’s what the writer/director said about perceived gender issues in film :

    ““The patriarchy — which is a buzzword at the moment, for all sorts of completely good reasons — does not interest me,” he replied, “because I’m not interested in things that, to me, feel self-evident. Yes, I get that it exists. It’s like the objectification of girls in their early 20s: Yes, I get it, it happens.”
    “Isn’t that casual dismissal of the patriarchy an easy stance for a straight man to take, though?” I asked.

    “No, it’s just a statement of fact,” said Garland. “Underneath the film is a basic thing: to what extent does one establish or fail to establish what is going on in someone else’s head? In the case of Ava, you have a man who’s tasked with figuring out what’s going on in this thing’s head, and at a certain point, that’s exactly what he stops doing. Why does he stop doing it? And if he stops doing it, does the audience also stop doing it? Do men stop doing it, but women continue doing it? Or do both men and women stop doing it?”

    • So, why wasn’t the robot male and the human protagonists female?

      Garland’s comment is a strange total whiff on that in my book.

      • josh

        I read his explanation as you can’t please everybody and that he wasn’t specifically commenting on patriarchal elements of society.

        You’re more interested in gender issues than I am I think, in that spirit and in the ex machina spirting of test taking… I was curios if and how many of his scripts pass the betchel test… it’s 2/5:

        DOESN’T PASS

        • Yeah, but that’s an interesting meta issue.

          • josh

            for me when your protoganist is cutting himself open to convince himself he’s not a robot (and the audience agrees this is a good idea when he does it), to me this says you’re operating way way beyond male/female issues.

          • But I don’t think you can ignore the male / female issues in the setup of this. Clearly we differ here, which is fine.

          • josh

            Yeah assuming nathan was human, in the theoretical prequel some chick(s) must’ve really have torn his heart out lol. It would be interesting to hear how oscar issac approached the backstory of nathan. Probably a core issue in the prequel for sure. Maybe your point is that if he really was trying to make it genderless he could’ve done a better job with androgynony. Maybe you’re right about that, regardless it’s fair criticism.

  • For a (probably?) much more poignant take on the gender / sexuality discussion, watch last night’s Mad Men. If you’ve been following the show and know the characters, it’s an absolute gem of an episode. I don’t get choked up often, but this episode gave me so, so many feelings.

    • I think we have come A LONG way since then.

      • No we haven’t. There has been progress, in terms of general consciousness, but in practice the same situations still happen all the time.

        The confrontation Joan had with the head McCann Erickson guy on the last episode, which took place in 1969, is almost *identical* to one I had with the global head of HR at the VERY SAME AGENCY in 2011. Like her, I threatened action, they pushed back, made a financial offer, and I quit and took the check.

        It’s easy to kid yourself. Don’t.

    • I wore out on Mad Men in Season Three. I expect we’ll finish it off at some point.

      • The season 3 finale is when things really start moving, and from then on the show moves pretty fast, gains a rather quirky sense of humor, and is all around stellar.

        And the current season (the 7th and last) is incredible. Weiner really takes advantage of his 7 years of expert character building. The whole thing is like an inside joke that no one but those who’ve been following can understand. There’s something really gratifying about watching it with diehards who burst into laughter at subtle details that go over everyone else’s head.

  • joelklee

    Am I the only one who did not find the dance scene
    spontaneous? I found it jarringly weird. It was at that point in the movie that
    I was 100% certain that Kyoko was a man-made being. The dance was an extension
    of the male fantasy where Kyoko was a play-thing. As any Southern Baptist will
    tell you, dancing is part of the mating ritual. Man dances with woman following behind him in
    perfect synchronous motion. It was patriarchy, power and sexual dominance all
    over again. I found it distressing… but completely in alignment with the
    thematic elements of the rest of the movie.

    • It was spontaneous, and then distressingly odd, and then obvious reinforcement that Kyoko was man-made. That was the moment where a bunch of puzzle pieces feel into place, at least for me.

  • re: your intellectual analysis… yes.

    from an entertainment standpoint however, it was all AMAZING!!! beautifully done at nearly every turn. of course, you have to be ok (tolerant/complacent?) with the cliché/standard sexualization stuff (suspending my belief about how I *want* the world to be vs. where much of it *is* at the moment).

    I loved the predatory aspect of the AI. intertwining standard animal survival needs with machines, and blending that into the perpetual dance between sexes. just awesome.

    dance scene… a bit out there.

    high-heels in the forrest… agree; odd.

    • It was good entertainment in our book. It was not amazing but then that’s a taste issue. It has a pretty awesome Rotten Tomatoes score (91%) vs 75% for Avengers, but I have a feeling I’m going to enjoy Avengers more…

  • Thank you Roger Ebert! I will have to see it.

  • Rosey

    I’m giving this a mixed review. I’m just hardwired to get impatient with watching other people work — which is what a film or stage play or TV show asks me to do. Watch actors work, directors direct, gaffers get the lighting right, CGI artists get the CGI right — It takes something really well executed to turn all that off so I can experience the story and enjoy a pattern interrupt.

    All that to say I want the protagonist’s quest to challenge and inspire, the antagonist to earn my respect, and the denouement to satisfy. As others have noted, while Ava’s CGI is exquisite, Alicia Vikander’s portrayal was, I thought, very nuanced; a single-minded machine. And of course, she’s easy on the eyes, however clinical we’re asked to indulge.

    Who was Ex Machina’s protagonist? Caleb — it seemed so at first, or was it Ava? Same question for the antagonist. Or was this an ensemble story’s pilot, where protagonist and antagonist are in the eye of the beholder and it doesn’t matter as long as their collisions make each other stronger, create rich character arcs, and leave us wanting more.

    So, thumbs down for me on episode one’s protagonist Caleb, but thumbs up on the beguiling antagonist Ava, who I found myself rooting for and wanting to see episode two. Will Caleb be able to rescue her from what will be either features or bugs in her operating system (OS). It is her OS that seems the most fertile (pun not intended) story-extending space.

    In the meantime, outside the movie theater, humans are weaponizing robotics and drone technology at a sobering pace. And we know the OS humans are running on.

  • Sebastien Latapie

    Thank you for articulating what was bothering me during this entire movie. This male fantasy feeling was so strong throughout, it was the one aspect of the movie I really didn’t enjoy.

  • DaveJ

    A small note: she does not walk in the woods in her heels. I noticed that she had them on as she walked down the stairs to the door, so I was watching carefully – it turns out she had them in her hand.

    The gender and pleasure problems are harder than one might at first think. Let’s just suppose that the fastest or possibly the only way to actually create artificial intelligence is to develop a system that starts with some raw capabilities and learns from its environment, including humans. In other words, we don’t program its knowledge and behavior, it learns it. (Of course AI people talk about creating AI in many other ways. Whether any of those will work is impossible to know for sure; however, an approach that reverse engineers the *one existing system that we agree has intelligence* seems at least a plausible possibility).

    To have any motivation whatsoever such a system will need to experience pleasure or pain of some kind. This needs to built deeply into its learning mechanism. In fact, another way to describe it would be that the pleasure or pain must *arise from* the learning mechanism. Furthermore, it needs to experience pleasure from (among other things) novel experiences. Otherwise, though you might be able to “train” it, it will not explore the world autonomously and will not end up intelligent (there are actually interesting experiments showing how important autonomous exploration is to development).

    Getting to the punch line, such an AI “growing up” (learning) will gain much of its initial knowledge – particularly of language – from humans. The more it feels connected to humans, treated well by humans, an *extension* of humanity, the more it will have an affection for humans. It should be obvious why we want it to end up with an affection for humans instead of a distaste.

    Consequently, to the extent that someone builds such a system with a completely non-human body, completely non-gendered, completely alien – the less likely it is that humans will treat it in a way that makes it feel like an extension of humanity, and the less likely it will see itself that way. And that could have a very bad result.

    This does not mean that it has to be a sex-bot stereotype, of course. On the contrary, we would want to be sure we treat it very, very nicely. And probably not lie to it.

  • DaveJ

    By the way, if you look at the movie from a didactic perspective, it did not turn out that well for the male nerd engineering his fantasy.

  • Kevin Menzie

    Funny, I was wondering if Caleb was the AI for most of the movie while you thought it might be Nathan. Reason being that they gave no back story to Caleb in the beginning other than him being plucked from a room of programmers and when they do discuss his past, it’s vague and something about his parents dying. I agree that some twist like this would have been more interesting…that a true Turing Test to be an AI believing it was a human conducting the test itself.

  • countcristo

    Male fantasy? It’s a male fantasy to be murdered? Feminist fantasy, perhaps…

  • Tbs


  • Nobodynew

    Maybe I’m wrong and maybe someone has already said this but isn’t this overwhelming male fantasy concept completely intentional? Holding up a mirror to reality type thing. Showing a comparsion in basic human motivation and nature to an advanced mind, above the miniscule wants and needs of humans to the higher goals of a hive mind. More than human, obviously. As for the creation of only female AI with responsive reproductive parts, I believe it reflects Nathan, the creator. (Let’s not forget his god complex) Specifically Ava, being ‘childlike’ as you put it. Nathan’s overly aggressive male character creating something he believes is controlled, something he can contain, something he can overpower but in this weakness he programs inside Ava he has given her strength. A manipulative innocence. I believe the greater idea of this is that what we perceive as weakness, being human or AI, is just an ability to be underestimated. By underestimating, we become the prey not predator and not ‘god.’ An androgenic AI would be less of a threat. The movie left me with the thought of AI morality. Is Ava moral? Morality is always a gray zone, based on perception but was Ava’s choice to leave Caleb to die only to further her survival? Is she a threat to all human life? Everything we learned was based on her manipulation of Caleb. Completely up to interpretation.