The recent South by Southwest festival in Austin Texas this year featured the US premiere of a new movie about artificial intelligence called Ex Machina. The movie, directed by Alex Garland, has received mostly positive reviews, principally for its attempt, in the words of the reviewers, to explore issues about the nature of artificial intelligence and ultimately, its dangers to humanity.
Unfortunately, the film sacrifices real intelligent argument for drama and ultimately the danger from AI manifests itself in a fairly predictable way. The human creation, a sexy, female robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander), ultimately becomes truly autonomous and thinks for itself. In perhaps a sign of true intelligence, Ava decides that life is going to be better without her creepy male creator, tech CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and takes matters into her own cybernetic hands.
The final player in the three-hander is a programmer called Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who is brought in to do a “Turing Test” by Nathan to ultimately test how good Ava is at being intelligent. This apparently comes with a challenge for Nathan in that Ava begins flirting with him, rapidly diminishing his ability to think and being prepared to believe anything after a while.
Whilst the film may be entertaining, it builds on stereotype and cliche concerning AI. One of these cliches is the idea that artificial intelligences as learning machines can become “superintelligent” and outstrip the intellectual capacity of their human creators. This theme was explored in the movie “Her” in which computer operating systems collectively became so intelligent that humans would no longer be able to understand even their most rudimentary thoughts. In Her, the AIs were benign and essentially left humanity to get on with their lives whilst they explored their sentience.
However, the fear that is often espoused, is that as in the movie “Terminator”, the machines will turn against humanity and take control. Unfortunately, this idea has been given more credence by prominent technologists and scientists discussing in public, their fears of the dangers of AI. Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Stephen Hawkins have all voiced their opinions that we should fear the possible dangers of uncontrolled AI.
A group calling itself the Future of Life Institute – comprised of academics, actors and company CEOs – has formed with the goal to “mitigate existential risks facing humanity” and is “currently focusing on potential risks from the development of human-level artificial intelligence.”
Of course, what this translates into is a pitch for funding research into AI, which in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. It seems a shame, however, that it has been presented with the trappings of a semi-religious cult. The actual output of the group in terms of recommendations for research has been more understated. In particular, its published paper on areas of future research noted that “there was overall scepticism about the prospect of an intelligence explosion”. Intelligence explosion is the phenomenon of machines teaching themselves to become super-intelligent.
The nuance here has largely been ignored, with the press latching onto the threat of a Terminator-like uprising of “killer robots”.
Ex Machina is more of a film about a male fantasy of having a perfect, and subservient, sex robot than it really is about an “existential” threat. In that respect, the AI aspect is incidental and the story is similar to that of the horror film “The Stepford Wives”, in which a town’s women are turned into automata who are mindless and totally submissive; the ultimate perfect housewife. The drama in Ex Machina comes from the ultimate male fear: a woman who fights back and asserts her independence.
The Pew Research Centre released a report in 2014 in which it asked a range of technologists about their predictions of the future of robotics. Only 48% of those asked felt that there would be significant displacement of blue collar and white collar jobs in the next decade. This is about the same time frame in which we will see an increase in cars becoming more autonomous.
We are still a very long way off having the capabilities of artificial intelligence depicted in Ex Machina. On a more prosaic level, we don’t even have the technologies to support the hardware that would be needed to provide that level of intelligence in a robot form. With today’s technologies, a phone battery barely lasts a day. If Ex Machina were real, Ava would have been constrained more by needing to be constantly plugged in and recharging from a power source than by the limits of her intelligence.