Once every few years, a movie comes which re-defines the sci-fi genre. Years ago, the Matrix trilogies did that. Inception was another movie which pushed the imagination and the idea of a future where the mind itself could be controlled by others.
Recently, I saw a movie Ex Machina which explores yet another frontier in technology – artificial intelligence. Is it really possible to build an artificially intelligent robot which has consciousness? Ex Machina is a movie which asks this question along with other relevant questions in today’s world. Hollywood has explored the theme of robotics and artificial intelligence. But many of them have glossed over the philosophy and have turned into mindless sci-fi action flicks. Ex Machina brings a fresh approach to this, as it depicts the current progress in the field of artificial intelligence (at least in private research) and online privacy, or the lack thereof.
Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac, is a genius at coding and has built the world’s most popular search engine. At a secret research facility, he has also built an artificially intelligent robot. He organizes a contest to invite the winner to conduct a Turing Test on his creation. For those out of the loop, a Turing Test was devised by Alan Turing to judge whether a computer can be called artificially intelligent. Read more about the Turing Test here, and a good if not great movie on Alan Turing himself).
From the first scene that he features in, Nathan looks distant, cold and calculating. IMHO, this is probably how the biggest software moguls today would behave, at least when they are out of the public eye. Think the founders of Google and Facebook. Curiously, the company which Nathan runs is named Blue Book.
The winner of the contest, Caleb, is an employee in Nathan’s company. Once Caleb is flies down to the secret research facility, he is introduced to Ava, the robot which Nathan has created. Alicia Vikander is mesmerizing as Ava, the curious yet intelligent AI robot who tries her best to learn more about Caleb and the situation she is in. The interactions between Caleb and Ava, and between Nathan and Caleb, form the majority of the movie.
Although I won’t reveal the entire plot of the movie, below could be some spoilers on what the movie is about. Read it at your own risk.
Ex Machina touches various aspects of robotics and artificial intelligence which are relevant in the future. There are a few points which I would found particularly interesting.
1) The topic of sexuality in robotics – There is a point in the movie where Caleb questions Nathan on the importance of an AI needing a gender. Why can’t the AI simply be a gray box? Nathan counters the question by asking why would one gray box want to interact with another gray box? Thus the concept of form, gender, and body language is as important as the actual brain of the AI. It provides the motivation for one AI to interact with another. But the answer is much simpler. One of the most wide uses of artificial intelligence would be in interactions with humans, and not with each other. For humans to be comfortable with AI robots, they need to have a form which they can relate to. This may, or may not, cause them to put down their guard. But in order to encourage a smooth and natural communication, all the senses will have to be developed, rather than having a screen on a dull gray box. No doubt, the sex/porn industry is one of the areas where artificial intelligence will find much use. And Nathan hints at this as well in the movie, when he mentions that, Ava, is indeed equipped with sensors at the “right” places to ensure that she too enjoys sex. But even out of the sex/porn industry, the presence of a human form, complete with gender and skin preferences would be required for humans to feel comfortable with AI robots.
2) Can robots kill? This is one of the most controversial concepts in the field of robotics. Can artificially intelligent beings kill? Or rather, should they be allowed to? Here the words “artificially intelligent” is very important. This is what differentiates machines from robots. This concept was made quite popular by Isaac Asimov through his Laws of Robotics. Of course whether a particular robot has the laws of robotics ingrained in it is decided by its creator. This is where things can start getting scary, and precisely why scientists such as Stephen Hawking and entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk are worried about the rapid growth of what AI can and cannot do.
This problem is compounded if we generalize the phrase, “Can robots kill?” to the more believable, “Can robots act against humans?” Granted that in the future, your household robot may not pick up the kitchen knife and stab you in the back while you sleep, but can it act against the general interest of you and your family, if programmed by its creators? The question, “What if Skynet becomes self-aware?” should be on our minds as we progress through more frontiers in AI technology.
3) Is your data really yours? This point is also touched upon in the movie. Nathan, being the head of the world’s most popular search engine, mentions nonchalantly how he has hacked each and every cell phone in the world to build a database of face gestures, speech patterns, etc. which he used to program his AI. He mentions that a lot of phone manufacturers did the same through their hardware as well. If you think that this far-fetched, think again. Even today, hundreds of websites track each and every move of yours on the internet. And some of the most notorious sites are the popular search engines and the social networks of the world. According to some reports, they can do so even when you’re logged out of your account. Searches, Photos, Likes, Check-Ins, Interests, Favorites, etc. can be used to build a personal preference profile which is currently used to target relevant ads to individuals. But the same information can be used for much more nefarious purposes.
This “leak” of data is even more rampant on mobile devices, where apps can read your identity, list others apps running on your devices, and monitor your browsing preferences with little to no control in your hands. Although it is easier to restrict such tracking on the computer, it is much more difficult to restrict what gets tracked through a hand-held device, such as a mobile or a tablet.
From what is available in the public domain (or commercially), one can surmise that artificial intelligence still needs to go a long way before it can achieve what is shown in the movie. Companies, in private, are already clearing the next hurdle with regard to technology and artificial intelligence. For now, we probably need not worry about what AI can and cannot do. But coupled with the kind of data which is being captured today, the AI of tomorrow will already have a lot of information about how you will react to situations in daily life (and in emergencies). So imagine, you know nothing about the AI, while the AI knows everything about you. That would, as Ava says, be one dimensional. And that is not how friendship is created.
In closing, the famous Oppenheimer quote is quite apt as far as AI is concerned. After all, artificial intelligence is no less damaging than the atomic bomb if it falls in the wrong hands. “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”