Sunday, November 29, 2015
"Ex Machina": Can Robotic Love Pass the Turing Test?
Ava in Ex Machina
I have recently viewed Alex Garland's film Ex Machina for the first time. On this blog, I have written about Alan Turing's test for thinking machines. In this film, Garland (the director and scriptwriter) has dramatized a clever version of this test.
Garland has said that this film is the product of a life-long fascination with the question of whether computers can become conscious thinking machines. In 2010, he read a book by Murray Shanahan (Professor of Cognitive Robotics at Imperial College London)--Embodiment and the Inner Life: Cognition and Consciousness in the Space of Possible Minds (Oxford University Press, 2010). Shanahan argued that consciousness arises from the relationship between cognition, sensorimotor embodiment, and the integrative character of the conscious condition. After reading the book, Garland wrote out a brief note for himself with the idea for his film. Shanahan became one of the scientific advisers for the film.
In the film, Caleb Smith, a 26-year-old computer programmer, has won a contest to spend a week at the home of Nathan Bateman, the programming genius behind Bluebook, a corporation that handles most of the world's web searching. When he arrives at Nathan's home, Caleb discovers that he will see if Nathan's greatest creation--an attractive robot Ava--can pass the Turing test. The original test has a computer and a human being hiding in separate rooms, with another human passing questions to them on scraps of paper, and the hidden computer and human must answer with written texts. The test is whether the computer can fool the questioner into thinking the computer is human.
Caleb points out that Nathan's test is different, because Caleb will know that Ava is a robot. But Nathan explains that his test is more interesting than Turing's: "The challenge is to show you that she's a robot, and see if you still feel that she has consciousness."
When Caleb meets Ava, we see the beautiful face of Alicia Vikander (who plays Ava), her sculpted breasts, and her transparent waistline. Nathan asks, "How do you feel about her?" Caleb responds, "She's fucking awesome." Nathan then asks, "How does she feel about you?" That's the interesting question that drives the plot.
Ava professes to care about Caleb, and they apparently warm to one another. Ava warns Caleb that Nathan is not to be trusted, because he has been cruel to the robots he has created. Caleb figures out that Nathan is going to shut down Ava's personality so that he can create a superior version of her. Caleb and Ava plot to escape from Nathan's house. Nathan is killed by Ava and another female robot. But then Ava leaves Caleb locked in a room, as she alters her body to have a fully human looking female form, and then leaves to assume a free life on her own. So she has tricked Caleb into thinking she cared for him, so that she could use him to manage her escape to freedom.
As some reviewers have noted, this is a variation on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein--a man creates artificial human life that eventually destroys him as fitting punishment for "playing God."
To me, there is a comic undertone to this film, in that we see Caleb displaying the stupid shallowness of young male sexuality, which is easily seduced by a few cues of a young female body. But there is a profound point here: unlike Turing's original test, which assumed that we judge human consciousness through disembodied messages, Garland's test runs through our human embodiment as sexual animals, which reflects the influence of Shanahan's thinking.
Alicia Vikander was a good actress for her part, because she was trained as a ballet dancer, and thus she can move with the seductive physicality of a woman's body.
Caleb's young male sexual appetite clouds his judgment in answering Nathan's question--"How does she feel about you?" All that really counts for Caleb is that "she's fucking awesome." (Unfortunately, the poor guy never gets to do it with her!)
Rosalind Picard is a computer scientist who studies "emotional artificial intelligence" in robots. In her review of the film for Science (July 17, 2015), she observed that Ava does not show any emotion in her face, even when Caleb tells her about the death of his parents when he was 15. Caleb is remarkably unperceptive about this.
Picard also observed that Ava has not been programmed with morality, which makes it hard to see what guides her actions. I would say that Ava is psychopathic in her lacking any moral emotions. Like human psychopaths, Ava is seductively charming in faking emotions that she does not have.
So perhaps Nathan should have asked: "Does she have any moral feelings?"
There is a YouTube video on the work in designing Ava for the film.
My most recent post on psychopaths is here.