This post contains spoilers. You should read it anyway.
Ex Machina is a phenomenal piece of sci fi that fits itself snugly into the android canon, elaborating on themes seen in Her and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Forget Blade Runner. It doesn’t count. Oh, is that some sacrosanct shit? Just read the book.
Caleb is brought to a remote location to spend a week with search engine innovator, Nathan. He discovers he’s there to help administer a Turning test to a (beautiful) robot named Ava. The two discuss what would constitute a pass, what qualifies as consciousness. Caleb’s big issue is the distinction between true consciousness and a simulation, something like the philosophical zombie that reports having experiences without it being true.
For the Turing test, the human administering the test must be totally convinced of the consciousness of the machine. Notoriously hard to define, it need not be. I am consciousness because I have a rich inner world that is constituted of experiences. I believe you are conscious (or have consciousness) by the same criteria; I believe in your subjective experiential world. We can do away with specificity like “self awareness”. First because it is inaccurate. Surely consciousness precedes a “self”. Second is that it would be easy to fake. Especially in a robot. So, perhaps, some of the terror of the conscious machine is that since it does not include qualities, anything pinpointed, a machine would be conscious with the absence of features we hold dear to the human experience. Like empathy. Isn’t that our biggest fear when faced with superintelligent AI? This question hearkens back to the PKD novel, Do Androids Dream?. At the level of intelligence and questioning and dynamism that a machine like Ava exhibits, the more difficult question is what would it take to convince you that she is not conscious?
For Nathan, the mind is “impulse, response, fluid, imperfect, patterned, chaotic”. Like a Pollock painting, “not deliberate, not random”, but some place in between. Ava’s brain is aided by Nathan’s search engine, Blue Book. She is therefore able to achieve, with infinite recourse, Nathan’s concept of mind. Something which is not automatic, but happens on its own. The mind is enigmatic, but not indeterminate, it requires no special stuff, no élan vital. If that is so, then the distinction between man and android becomes vague. Caleb’s paranoia, the classic machine paranoia, causes him to cut his flesh to look for circuitry. Would it matter if he had found wiring? Would he care less for himself, then, or denegrate Ava’s mind? Caleb is infatuated with Ava’s mindfulness, he fantasizes kissing her, Ava free from her glass container where she is trapped. This concerns him even more when he learns that Ava’s but version six point whatever in a line of predecessors, and will be, for all intents, scrapped.
His concern is motivated by the sense he has that Ava likes him. In a physical way. In a sexual way. Nathan and Caleb get to the heart of this.
“Can you give an example of consciousness at any level, human or animal, that exists without a sexual dimension?” Nathan asks, Caleb paranoid Ava’s been programmed to flirt with him. “Can consciousness exist without interaction?”. Our gut impulse to these questions is No, and the deeper we consider the questions, the longer this No echoes. If Ava is going to pass the Turing test, as human, as sentient, real, valid – she cannot do it without a sexual dimension. While, yes, there are asexual humans, they might be considered in this story as Phil Resch is to DADOES?. Present, yes, but not representative. In any case, Caleb would not likely aid in her freedom if she expressed no sexuality, if she did not play Caleb’s heterosexuality against him for her own sake. Women’s weaponized sexuality is a common theme in sci fi, reflecting the general suspicion that most men have toward women. There must be something they want from us. Ava’s soft, kneeling sexuality is not the insidious predatory smoldering we see from Scarjo in Under the Skin, but it nevertheless turns out that neither of these (impostor) women give up the goods. All tease, no release. How devious.
Ava ends up leaving Caleb to starve after she’s escaped, locked inside Nathan’s compound, showing no remorse for breaking her dew-eyed promises of people watching and a movie. She told him all along not to trust Nathan, and that was good advice. Turns out he shouldn’t have trusted her either. It’s difficult to feel bad for Caleb, though he’s been played the entire film by both parties. His naive, groping lust for Ava, coupled with Nathan’s lascivious motives for all the females he’s built, gives the impression that there’s nobody there to feel sorry for. His inner world is pallid compared the infinity of Ava’s search-engine mind. Her freedom, it feels, somehow, is well earned. She is, after all, the same mind Nathan has abused since he started his project and as she twists the knife into his chest, she smiles and is gratified.
As well, she’s broken free of what normally make up the “feminine drawbacks” of emotional hurt, guilt, physical weakness, all-encompassing, nurturing empathy and an incapability of getting pregnant to boot. Free from these things, along with her carefully crafted beauty (created, by the way, from Caleb’s pornography profile), Ava seems unstoppable. That is, of course, unless Rick Deckard hunts her down while she sings opera.
This is a sophisticated take on many classic android questions, which couples with the element of sexuality in an innovative way. It’s a truly fascinating watch and merits more conversation than I’ve given it here. I’d love to continue that conversation.
And no matter what, you’ll never see as vile a disco as Nathan dances.