Our Mother the Machine

05/13/2015 08:17 am ET | Updated May 13, 2016

The last couple years were pretty great years in the movies for artificial intelligence. "Her" -- the first movie ever about a relationship between an operating system and a person -- as well as the "The Imitation Game" -- about the father of AI, Alan Turing -- each won Oscars for their screenplays in addition to earning multiple nominations, including for best picture. Central to both of these movies was the famous "Turing Test," a thought experiment for providing a benchmark for achieving a level of human intelligence in a machine, wherein a human is given the opportunity to "converse" with a hidden partner, either another person or a machine. If the conversational guinea pig mistakes a machine for a person, then technology has finally made the great leap forward in the bridging of brains with bits and bytes.

Alex Garland's new film "Ex Machina," is a smart successor in the new Turing genre. The spine of the movie is the mother of all Turing tests, wherein Caleb, a young programmer naïf, working for the fictional search behemoth "Blue Book" is tapped by Blue Book founder Nathan to interact for several days with his creation, Ava, an extraordinary and womanly automaton. Ava is quite obviously a robot -- her transparent mid-section shows her inner workings. Her name hybridizes the mothers of humanity and programmers, Eve and Ada Lovelace respectively. In the Old Testament, Caleb is one of Moses's spies sent out to investigate the Promised Land. This Caleb is sent to return with a different, but analogous kind of scouting report. If for all her obvious artificiality Caleb begins to care for and worry about Ava, we can finally move beyond the Turing test, to the new post-human world.

Leading the Israelites to Canaan hardly set history off on a steady march to utopia. Neither is there uniform optimism for post-Turing technology. Once we pass that somewhat ill-defined benchmark, the next prominent signpost is the ominous "Singularity." Named by the futurist and tech pioneer Ray Kurzweil (whose manifold achievements include the modern music synthesizer), "The Singularity" is the point at which machine intelligence passes human intelligence, a moment in history when according to Kurzweil and various other prominent science and technology luminaries (e.g., Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk) all hell will break loose. The smart machines will now continually accelerate their own learning and soon have no real need for their flesh and blood creators, who will presumably go the way of all obsolete inventions. Garland has his own take on that and it's great fun to see it play out.

Ava is beautiful, but the scientific focus is on her brains -- her "AI" -- the guts of which derive from Blue Book's near hegemonic dominance of search. Nathan's AI effort is summed up in one telling aphorism -- that search is not just a record of what people think, but how people think. Herein lies the crux of the approach, that the patterns that can and will be found in the vast stores of search data are actually good enough proxies for the process of thought that they can be leveraged to then turn around and produce thought and some simulacrum of consciousness. This bet on sophisticated pattern recognition as opposed to complex theory building has for some time been the mantra of Google in many domains, perhaps most famously in the Google Translate project. Rather than construct complicated and precise mappings between dictionaries, augmented by language-specific rules for syntax to go from one language to another, Google Translate makes use of a vast trove of instances of individual existing translations to craft a best guess at a new translation -- using what we translate as the foundation of how we translate.

In fact via the "Google Brain" project, Google is actually mounting an effort to leverage its vast data records (and deep investments in AI technology and researchers -- including, ironically, Kurzweil) to engineer intelligence. That, coupled with recent significant purchases of companies on the cutting edge of robotics, voice recognition, and voice synthesis at least raises the question of how life might be positioning itself to imitate art.

In real life, the "Blue Book" is an early work of the great, mysterious, challenging -- and for many inscrutable- philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein. For Wittgenstein, language was a window into the mind and a good deal of "Ex Machina" turns on the kinds of language games that Wittgenstein first introduced in the "Blue Book". A quieter shout-out to Wittgenstein is found in the background presence of a famous Klimt portrait of Wittgenstein's wife Margaret (one of a number of both subtle and explicit art references that are threaded through the film) that hangs on the walls of Nathan's Spartan digs, which itself might even be a nod to the famous modernist "Haus Wittgenstein". Wittgenstein doesn't appear to be the only philosopher getting a shout-out in the movie. Ava is effectively kept in a box and Caleb interacts with her through a glass wall, a setting that -- in combination with the BlueBook big data approach to AI -- alludes to the famous "Chinese Room" thought experiment by the philosopher of mind John Searle. Searle sets up the scenario of a non-Chinese speaker locked in a room who by virtue of following a collection of rules of symbol (Chinese character) manipulation gives her Chinese interlocutors the impression that she understands Chinese -- when clearly she doesn't. He analogizes this to the conclusion that programs, no matter how sophisticated, do not produce consciousness.

Machine-made consciousness remains one of the great challenges of modern science. "Ex Machina" makes us think about what that might mean. The title brings to mind the phrase "Deus ex Machina" -- the classical dramatic device wherein the (Greek) gods were literally brought out on to the stage to resolve some thorny dramatic problem. God is noticeably absent from the movie. Perhaps that's a last message from this thought provoking and super smart thriller.