June 19, 2015

“An attitude towards a machine”

The British film Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland, is an intelligent dramatization of the issue of artificial intelligence. Caleb, a young programmer working for Bluebook (the counterpart of Google in the film’s universe), is invited to spend a week in the company owner’s secluded refuge in the wilderness. It turns out that Caleb is to conduct an enhanced version of the Turing test on an advanced robot, Ava, constructed by the owner, Nathan. Ava is designed as a female. If she can get Caleb convinced that she loves him, he will take her to have a consciousness, and thus she will have passed the test. Of course, Caleb knows from the start that Ava is an artefact, which raises the stakes. I shan’t give the plot away for those who haven’t yet seen the film.
Ex Machina might be suitable for a film and philosophy course. It gives plenty of food for thought. There is ingenious play with various degrees of embodiedness - to travesty Wittgenstein, Ava’s body is the worst picture of her soul (Philosophical Investigations¸ Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment, § 25).The erotic tension gives a wholly different twist to the intellectualist preconception of the original Turing setup.
Standing before a Jackson Pollock painting, Nathan explains that the greatest difficulty is how to recapture a similar effect of controlled spontaneity in the robot.
            There are, by the way, some intriguing allusions to Wittgenstein – maybe as a gesture to his grappling with the problems of souls and automata (e.g. Philosophical Investigations § 420). Apart from the search engine Bluebook which is explicitly said to be named after the Wittgenstein text, a copy of Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein (Ludwig’s sister), posing erect, cool, composed, is prominently displayed – in the room in which the female dresses and faces of robots are stored. (Gender roles is also a theme of the film that might be explored.) And on one occasion, Ava shows Caleb a doodle she has made and asks “What is this?” (an allusion to Culture and Value, p. 24). Caleb then teaches her to draw.
            Like virtually all stories involving artificial intelligence, this film remains a fairy tale along the lines of Frankenstein or Pygmalion – not a prediction of a possible development. The missing link in all stories about artificially created consciousness is the question how a human creation is supposed to be endowed with a life. The real deus ex machina here is Ava’s supposed desire to survive. But where does her desire come from? Or rather: where does the machine’s disposition to secure its own continued functioning come from?