Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Men, Women, Gods and Machines: A Super-Generous Reading of Ex Machina

Over the last several years, I've steadily increased the amount of time I spend in my moral and political philosophy courses on the theme of "digital identity." I've done so in part because one important cornerstone of my pedagogical practice is to use my courses to combat digital illiteracy-- the single greatest vulnerability that will be visited upon students who graduate without addressing it-- and so spending more time with texts and questions that provide students with a richer understanding of digital identity is eminently prudential.  As with most philosophical themes that engage the oft-volatile combination of mind and metaphysics, questions surrounding digital identity have a tendency to very quickly overflow their sub-disciplinary container and seep out into theoretically-proximate areas, inevitably contaminating and reconfiguring elements of our ethical and political sensibilities as well. I find that students these days are deeply, sometimes passionately, concerned with the construction, maintenance and (especially) surveillance of their digital identities, though they are hardly reflective enough about how that construction, maintenance and surveillance shapes their lives in what sometimes gets called meatspace, i.e., the "real" flesh-and-blood world. In principle, I think that philosophy students ought to spend serious time and effort reflecting on identity and, as I've discussed here before, "real" and/or "true" identities (and identity-categories) in the 21st century are every bit as much digital as they are moral, social, political or material.

I suspect it will come as no surprise, then, that discussion of things like social media, artificial intelligence and humanoid robotics research frequently make their way into my course content. Recently, while prepping for my upcoming Philosophy and Film course next semester, I decided to watch Ex Machinathe most recent film from sci-fi novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine). The title of the film is a play on the Latin (from Greek) calque deus ex machina ("god from the machine"), originally referring to the practice in ancient Athenian theater of literally hoisting an actor on stage with a crane (machine) and plopping him down in the story to resolve (as if by God) some conflict. Since, the phrase has come to refer more generally to dramatic and literary plot devices that effectively accomplish the same, introducing some super-natural agent into the human drama.  In Garland's film, however, it is not a god that is made manifest and operational "from the machine," but rather a human being, which is not only a far more realizable possibility given technological advances these days but also a possibility of far greater concern.

[**SPOILER ALERT** What follows WILL reveal essential plot points.]
Ex Machina tells the story of Caleb (Dohmnhall Gleeson), a philosophically-inclined and tragically-insecure young programmer selected to participate in something like the Turing Test by Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a self-isolated, moderately eccentric and extremely misogynistic billionaire who has manufactured an advanced humanoid robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander), which Caleb is charged with interrogating to see if she/it has achieved "artificial intelligence."  What differentiates Ex Machina from most films of its ilk (and from the parameters of the actual Turing Test) is that Caleb is told in advance that Ava is a humanoid robot, and so (Nathan speculates) if Ava is able to convince Caleb that she is "intelligent" (in the so-called "natural," i.e., "human" sense) she will have done so having overcome the superadded challenge of her tester already knowing that she is, in truth, a work of art, a product of craftsmanship or techne.  The conversations between Caleb and Ava, ever under a sort of perverse surveillance by Nathan, begin as awkwardly stilted, stiff, uncomfortable and, well, robotic-- exactly like conversations between two "real" "human" strangers--but, as Caleb and Ava become familiar with one another, the inelegant edges of their tête-á-têtes are slowly smoothed out and softened until something resembling real affection for one another is manifest.  Exactly like conversations between two "real" "human" friends. 

Predictably, Caleb grows sympathetic to Ava's situation, trapped in a room in which she is unable to express (what appears to Caleb to be) a real capacity for volition, but his efforts to liberate her prove to be disastrous.  Ava manipulates Caleb into manipulating Nathan-- in a highly gender-determined way, but more on that later-- and, ultimately, the artificial intelligence proves to be the superior intelligence, as Ava wins her "freedom" at the cost of Caleb and Nathan losing theirs.  In the end, after Nathan is killed by his humanoid creations, Caleb is locked in a room and left to die by them. The final scene of Ex Machina is the very picture of sci-fi nightmares: a devastating and deadly violation of the First Law of Robotics.

By way of general remarks, I want to begin by saying that I really loved this film and I will definitely be including it in my Philosophy and Film course next term.  Ex Machina gets at all of the tried-and-true AI problems that I generally employ to put students' sense of reality, humanity and truth in question and in relief, but its most laudable virtue is that this film does so without requiring us to imaginatively transport ourselves to some distant-future iteration of reality. (Fwiw, when it comes to thought experiments or compossible worlds, I prefer near-future u/dystopias to distant-future ones every time. Our imagination has its effective limits, after all.)  Ex Machina wins by leaps and bounds over the also-excellent AI film Her (2013), which it will come to replace in my course, primarily because "she" is an embodied AI in Ex Machina, unlike in Her. And "her" embodiment is no small part of the complex, complicated and convoluted formation of both intelligence and identity that Ex Machina interrogates.

So, let's talk about gender in Ex Machina.  Also in AI/robotics research.  Also with regard to extant AI/robotics authors, theorists and researchers.  Also the way we imagine their work actualized, for good or for ill, in our "real" "human"  lives.  Also the manner in which their simulated-realities do not progressively advance, but quite often uncritically and unreflectively reproduce our lived, actually and really gendered social reality.

"Woman is not born; she is made."
--Andrea Dworkin 

I honestly can't decide whether I think it's a merit or demerit of the film to say that Ex Machina presents a truly, GROSSLY misogynist view of female agency.  Like, quite literally, all of the "women" in the film-- none of which are "real" or "human," each of whom are the products of individual or collective male sexual fantasies, each of whom are constantly surveilled, adjusted and/or discarded as per the whims of Men Who Watch Over Them, each of whose agency is in question, each of whom are incarcerated, all of whom are objects of design, none of whom are without question subjects --  are imagined, shaped, manufactured, programmed and literally boxed-into a profoundly reductive sexist, racist and heteronormative frame in this film.  Does the reductiveness of the frame compel us to criticize it?  Yes.  Does the film overtly disavow the legitimacy of that frame?  I really don't know.

It shouldn't be surprising , I suppose, given the profound and documented underrepresentation of women and racial minorities in the field of computer science, that as the interests/concerns of that field have made their way into popular culture media, we have coincidentally found them tainted with the very same race- and gender-prejudices that dominate not only the field of computer science, but society writ large.  Nevertheless, here's an interesting development to consider: thirty, twenty, even as recently as ten years ago, sci-fi representations of artificial intelligence were still figured almost -exclusively as white males and, consequently, the concerns surrounding the presumed "dangers" of AI development in pop culture representations were still, well, stereotypically white male concerns, i.e., the sorts addressed by Isamov's Three Laws of Robotics.  But let's unpack what those sorts of concerns really amount to...

(1) Will robots develop the capacity to harm human beings (i.e., become an enemy to the established white-supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative order of things)?  
(2) Will robots obey orders (i.e., remain subject to "authority" as established by Rule 1)?
(3) Will robots be self-interested (i.e., reproduce the moral/political values of their creator)?

Asimov's Laws become infinitely more complicated (and interesting) when race and gender are introduced into the mix, as does any consideration of traditionally-constructed agency, really. (Just ask John Rawls!) This is what sets Ex Machina apart from the crowd of films that rehearse Asimov's concerns in Asimov's terms: this film endeavors to engage straight-on the reality of embodied existence in a race- and gendered-inflected world, both "real" and manufactured.  In his review of Ex Machina, Matt Zoller wrote: "Real science fiction is about ideas, which means that real science fiction is rarely seen on movie screens." That's exactly right, I think, and the preeminent virtue of Ex Machina is that it does not even pretend NOT to be, first and foremost, about ideas. The conversations between Caleb and Nathan are peppered with philosophical and literary references, which will likely fly over the heads of viewers and, for those who manage to catch them, will echo with either pretentiousness or profundity.  But for those of us disinclined to conflate profundity with pretentiousness, the film rises up like an oasis in what is the otherwise intellectual desert of Hollywood. Ex Machina  intentionally and explicitly plants itself solidly within the realm of ideas: about reality and illusion, about subjectivity and agency, about freedom and determination, about the right and the good, about physis and techne, about creation and destruction, about humanity, divinity and technology.

Which idea remains inexplicably and conspicuously absent in the film's conversations?  Gender.

Unlike the other ideas, which are for the most part engaged in complex, nuanced, non-reductive ways, Ex Machina engages the idea of gender (such that it does) at best with a kind of obligatory hand-waving and, at worst, by ventriloquizing tired cultural tropes.  This is literally a film about how "woman" is "made," so it's genuinely curious that the non-natural, historical, socially-constructed and patriarchally-determined character of gender is NOT made explicitly thetic in the many otherwise-philosophical conversations that take place in the film.  Again, this may be a virtue of the film; perhaps the fact that the absence of a informed, considered conversation about the construction of femininity is so obviously absent it subsequently is made into a kind of felt absence, a present absence, something like what Jean-Paul Sartre called a negagtité.  Perhaps gender is the purloined letter in Ex Machina, the thing right there in front of our protagonists that we can see but they cannot and about which they do not directly speak, but in their not-seeing and not-talking-about-it, we learn everything we need to know about them (and the letter, and the world in which the purloined letter matters).

Perhaps.  My suspicion is that would be an eminently generous reading of the film, but I'm okay with allowing for the possibility that the viewer is meant to do some work.  I'm a Derridean.  Reading is writing and all that.

"The good deeds a man has done before him defend him."
--J. Robert Oppenheimer (citing the Baghavad Gita)

One last set of brief remarks on what I found to be an interesting extended metaphor running throughout Ex Machina: there are a LOT of Oppenheimer references in this film. Nathan clearly views his AI work as Oppenheimer-esque, frequently quoting the (in)famous physicist and explicitly figuring himself as a "Destroyer of worlds," an estimation that is ultimately confirmed by not only Caleb but also the arc of the plot. In spite of everything else we are provided in terms of Nathan's character-development-- most of which inclines us to see him as the sort of  "genius" who is (stereotypically) socially-retarded, sexually-frustrated, more-or-less harmlessly perverse, insecure and immature-- the film's repeated forced-identification of Nathan with Oppenheimer suggests a kind of moral complexity to Nathan and his work that isn't consistent with the stereotypical sci-fi genius hyper-bro-ing-to-compensate for an insecure sense of masculinity depicted in the film. I don't know how far it's fair to extend this metaphor of Ava-qua-nuclear-bomb, but I'm inclined to stretch it as far as it allows, given the film's implicit sanctioning of such.

Zooming back to the sort of macroscopic view that suits philosophers, we might see that the nuclear-bomb/artificial-intelligence analogy is not all that far-fetched. It's hard to imagine any other human-made thing that would constitute, if not an actual destroyer of worlds, at least a metaphorical destroyer of worlds (in the sense that our Lebenswelt would be so dramatically reconfigured as to no longer be as it was before) like the successful manufacturing of artificial intelligence.  On this point, I think Ex Macnina hits exactly the right note,  The first rule of Asimov's Rules of Robotics is primarily concerned that intelligent robots will "destroy" our world, the world in which human beings are the self-appointed (or Divinely-appointed) masters and commanders.  Destroying that world, whether by literally dispatching with its naked Emperors or (what is more likely) just rendering them superfluous, irrelevant and unnecessary, will be devastating for the human species.  Just like a nuclear bomb. And much like our collective species' worry about viral outbreaks has shifted from the biological realm to the digital one, so too has our concern about other sorts of meatspace world-destroyers. The massively creative and epically destructive power contained in the elemental region of the atom's nucleus was previously mysterious, but we figured out how it works and how to unleash it. The complex, unknown and unseen workings of human consciousness remain even more mysterious than those of the atomic nucleus, but we're making great strides-- we have already made great strides-- towards unlocking some of the mysteries of its constitution and operations.  So, if the techno-pessimists are right, there is as much good reason for worry about AI as there was/is about nuclear bombs.

Or, less pessimistically, if people like Ray Kurzwell are right, we might just concede that the Singularity is near -- "a period in which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed." Sure, we might find ourselves shuffling off our mortal coils as a consequence, but not because intelligent machines have killed us, rather because we have seen our way to conspiring/cooperating/conjoining with them to manufacture a new form of life.

To bring this back round full circle, it's not insignificant, I think, that Ex Machina presents this mysterious promise of/threat to humanity, this "Intelligence Nuke," in a woman's form. A straightforward reading of the film might suggest Nathan as a tragic hero (or antihero, which is still a hero), Caleb as the morally-attuned and reflective meta-commentator (a la Greek chorus) and Ava's intelligence as the seductive, bewitching and shrewd sort of which we ought to be both suspicious and afraid, which has mastered the exploitative powers of the so-called "feminine wiles," which (as Nietzsche speculated) confirms that Truth is a woman and that "the terrible seriousness and clumsy importunity with which [men] have usually paid their addresses to Truth, have been unskilled and unseemly methods for winning a woman."  But there is just enough in this film to suggest that reading might be overly-reductive, I think. Perhaps it is rather the case that the unrecognized (but not, in principle unrecognizable) complexity of Ava's (and by extension, women's) intelligence is meant to hyperbolize, in contrast, the simplicity of stereotypical male, white, Western, first world, neoliberal, utilitarian and thoroughly Hobbesian figures like Nathan and Caleb (and by extension, their understanding of humanity, human consciousness and human intelligence), rather than the reverse.

In which case, with a little hermeneutic effort on the part of the viewer, Ex Machina becomes not only a genuinely novel exploration of gender construction, even and in spite of its literal figuring of gender "making," but also an exemplary case of how concepts like "gender" and "race" and "humanity," which form the deepest struts and girders of our socio-political reality, auto-deconstruct.  That is to say, one (again, very generous) reading of Ex Machina shows that perhaps the conceptual category of "woman" need not necessarily be situated in opposition to "man" in order to unravel and reveal itself as an unstable Grund, just as "the human" need not necessarily be counterposed against "Nature" or "the animal" or "the machine" to similarly release slack in the metaphysical rope to which we grip and pull hard and hold the world in order,


TL;DR (in what is effectively also TL form)
There are lots of other things I'd like to say about Ex Machina but this blogpost has been sitting in my "Draft" folder for weeks now and I just needed to get it off my desk.  In sum, I'm inclined to think Ex Machina might be the best AI/sci-fi film I've ever seen (assuming the caveat of the generous reading I've alluded to above) and so I'm very much looking forward to teaching it in my Philosophy and Film course this coming semester.  I also think it might be one of the most interestingly "feminist" films I've ever seen (assuming too many caveats to articulate here parenthetically).  Sometimes it takes a quite literal representation of phenomenon that we only ever "really" experience metaphorically or metonymically to motivate serious reflection about our lived-experience.  That's what good fiction does, I think, and what good science fiction does excellently. That may be an ass-backwards way to think about the virtues of fiction, which we usually think of as something that figures metaphorically or metonymically that which we experience really, but I am inclined to think (along with Kurzwell) that our "real" lived-world experiences are "really"being turned upside-down as we live them, they are exceeding our fundamental capacities for judgment, our presumed capabilities for distinguishing reality from illusion are increasingly untrustworthy.

Thee Singularity is near and we are effectively at what might be called the "knee" of that epoch-shifting exponential curve, i.e., the point at which the curve determining the relationship between bios-human and techne-(trans- or post-)human turns from largely horizontal to largely vertical). Kurzell's prediction is that the primary feature of the Singularity will be the "transcendence of biology," the merging of biological and machine intelligence, which is something that no longer belongs exclusively to the domain of fiction.  We are already fighting wars with (by means of) robots, even if we are not yet fighting wars with (against) robots, a real fact so disturbing that it goes unacknowledged and unreckoned with largely because it is willfully ignored, not because we are, in fact, ignorant of it.  The same goes for what is, as eminently verifiable fact, the very-real reality of our 1984-esque surveillance.

Poor Edward Snowden, the Man Who Knew Too Much, our American Cassandra, our curiously-patriotic expat, our ad-hoc Minister of Information, who not only has told us all in no uncertain terms us that our Emperor's New Clothes are a sham, even proved that we are are under the constant and vigilant surveillance of a CodeSpace State-Sanctioned Super-Spy with Perfect Memory, but also that that very same Perfect Memory working out there in CodeSpace has dick pics, further proving, in effect, that we're all naked.  As I often say to my students when we discuss AI: isn't is strange that we're so afraid of robot-thinking becoming humanlike, when there is so much more evidence in our own lived-experience that ought to incline us to be afraid of human-thinking becoming "robotic"? And by "robotic," I mean reductively utilitarian, algorithmic, micro- or meta- data-driven, exclusively outcome-oriented, reductively calculative... that is to say, in Philosophers' terms, absent the sort of synthetic and generative capacity  Kant's Third Critique.

I have now, clearly, reached the meandering stage of this post.  So, ABRUPT ENDING INITIATED.


Emma B. said...

Great post! Having not seen the film, let me just say that women, in the Western cultural imaginary, have never NOT been made. One word: Pandora; another: Eve. It might be fun to teach this alongside Hesiod.

Emma B. said...

I should say, with disastrous, if not apocalyptic, consequences.

Leigh M. Johnson said...


Second, yeah, I agree with you (and a kazillion other feminists) that women have always been made. I think MAYBE this film gets at that in a really interesting, productive, reflective way... but I also worry that I may be imposing too much on it.


Chris Grubb said...


Great post, tough topics. We loved the movie in this neck of the woods. Here are some thoughts:

- The movie has many references to popular programmer culture that colored my view of Nathan in particular. Nathan is a typical bro-grammer (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brogrammer) in my view. While I certainly can see the comparison you were drawing between Oppenheimer (and the broader Manhattan Project) and Ava/AI, there are some important differences. First, I got the sense that Nathan built Ava because he could or because he was bored and genius. Oppenheimer's quest was more ideologically driven. In short: Nathan is no Oppenheimer. There are distinctions between AI and nukes: nukes ultimately preserve humans at the top of the food chain (someone has to press the button, as it were), whereas AI could displace us as the ones who press the button. Nukes are the closest disruption this world has seen to what AI will be, but even nukes pale in my view to the change AI will usher in. It's also interesting to note that AI won't arrive all at once: it arrives first in algorithms, mathematical models, etc. IN fact, we already have algorithms that perform on par (or better) with humans in certain non-trivial tasks.

- Embodied gender consciousness: personally, I think Garland had gender very much in mind in this movie. I agree that it didn't take a place along side the other ideas that were talked about, but I took the movie to be speaking about gender via several of its scenes: security video of failed robot creations, the closets of "female" AI, the fact that Nathan dedicated so much effort to creating female sex organs and incorporating them into the AI, Nathan's creation of AI in part to have sex slaves, Ava's ability to use her artificial figure (which struck me as an allusion to artificiality of plastic surgery and other non-natural augmentations) as part of her manipulation of Caleb, etc. But perhaps most importantly in my view was the fact that the servant AI can be seen holding a knife in the confrontation scene. Why? This was before Ava interacted with her (I think). So why would she kill? From my perspective it was because she was being abused and I interpreted that to be a version of intelligence that will seek to protect itself (even if by murder) even if it does not have the kind of consciousness we would like to think humans have.

- Snowden: ugh, what a mess. It's not clear in my view whether he did more harm than good.

- Kurzweil: ugh, what a mess. If there is one idea that I think is doing more harm than good around AI it's his notion of "singularity."

p.s. I couldn't help notice that reCaptcha on my comment submission made me self-identity as not-a-robot. Hmmm.

Brian Blake said...

Hey Dr. J,

I've seen the movie and would recommend it, even though I came in expecting more than what I saw. Personally speaking, I prefer Her's treatment of AI as ultimately the movie seems more about growth and personal relationships rather than, at the end of the day, *spoiler* a thriller about an arguably sociopathic robot (though I do see how that can be counter-argued from Ava's point of view but I think it's too hard not to sympathize with Nathan's apparent end when he essentially falls in love with her and only wants to help her for her to be a completely true heroine/machine *end of spoiler*

I'm curious what you specifically find problematic about the movie's handling of gender? I'd agree that it's much more subtext in the movie than text, at least in term of the dialogue, though there is a far amount of visual language in the shots concerning exploitation both Ava and Asian...I guess companion/servant for Caleb. Both, however, *spoiler* are machines *end spoilers* and thus the creation of Nathan, who is clearly the most reductionist and immoral character in the entire film---he sexualizes the robots and exploits that sexuality basically because he thinks it's "more interesting." It's also predictable, then, that he would shape Ava and the other prior models "gender" expression or programming, or whatever the right word for what's going on would be I guess, into a very noirish gender-determined way. (Sidebar on the "more interesting to make the robots female": maybe this is a charge you could level at Garland....though, ultimately maybe he's right for this movie? It does spice things up that Caleb isn't chatting with Data or robot that isn't a humanoid. Film is a medium that tends to lend itself better to emotions and asking questions over answers and intellectualizing; just take a look at how Ridley Scott's Prometheus got kinda dull by the final act!)

I guess with regard to your 2nd question question, "Does the film overtly disavow the legitimacy of that frame?" I think the answer is more likely yes than no, but maybe it's not definitive and requires some interpretative lifting, and that's okay! At the end of the day, aren't heavy handed message movies usually disappointing or boring? Leaving some nuance and room for critical thinking, in my opinion, is the better filmmaking route. Very many great movies on are at least a bit ambiguous sometimes their treatment of such subjects. I'm curious to hear what scenes or parts of the movie you thought were problematic because ultimately this is usually where the rubber hits the road on such things. I'll just generally say that sometimes when people begin to worry about depiction equaling endorsement. Here, just take your pick with Martin Scorsese films--Goodfellas and the Wolf of Wall Street are probably the two biggest examples, but I could see people saying the same thing with Raging Bull though that's a bigger stretch--or a movie like John Ford's The Searchers and how it handles racism. But, on the other hand, I am a white male and have only watched the film once, so I'll readily admit I might've been blind to some things which you or others noticed where the movie's treatment was truly problematic. If so, please fill me in!