Ghosts in the Testing Machine: Ex Machina and Education Reform

05/04/2015 12:05 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2016

What makes a mind come alive? And how will you know when it's happened?

Two new films -- one about the death of the factory school, the other about the dawn of artificial intelligence -- attempt to answer this question from radically different vantage points. Taken together, they provide both a cautionary tale and a reason to be hopeful about the not-too-distant future. And fittingly, what both films suggest is that when it comes to measuring the spark of sentience, the tests we use matter greatly.

In Most Likely to Succeed, the question is whether our industrial-age obsession with measuring human intelligence via exams that a machine can score can provide us with anything more than an artificial confirmation of whether schools are fulfilling their purpose. The film begins with a heartbreaking glimpse into the life of the filmmaker, Greg Whiteley, who has watched the fire go out of his own 9-year-old daughter's eyes and begun to wonder how schools can become less mind-numbing and more mind-awakening.

That question leads him to spend a year at High Tech High, a public charter school in San Diego that is housed in the airy warehouse of a former marine barracks, and a place where all measures of student progress are done through hands-on projects and public exhibitions.

High Tech High is an intentional refutation of just about every major symbol and structure of the industrial-era model of schooling. There are no bells, class periods, or subjects. What teachers teach -- on one-year contracts -- is entirely up to them, and not one minute of class time is spent preparing for standardized state exams.

To let us see what that sort of philosophy looks like in practice, Whiteley tracks a year in the life of an incoming class of ninth graders. On the first day of school, they look disoriented and sheepish as their teacher asks them to set up the room for a Socratic seminar. One girl in particular, Samantha, feels like a proxy for Whiteley's own daughter; she is hesitant and self-conscious, her cheeks red with embarrassment -- a familiar face of adolescent uncertainty.

By year's end, however, Samantha is transformed; she has become the director of her class' play about the Taliban -- a production that is entirely student-run and written. And most importantly, she has become more self-confident and self-aware. "I'm astonished about your voice," a teacher says to her during her final "test" of the year, a public conversation in which she is asked to make sense of her own growth. "Sometimes at the beginning of the year, it was hard to even hear you. So can you talk about the development of your voice this year?"

Samantha explains to a rapt room of adults and classmates that it's about being confident in who you are. "And this is one of the absolutely most important things I've learned this year. It's good to make other people smile. It's good to smile yourself. But it's also good to have new experiences. It's good to learn, and to go through struggles so that you come out knowing something new."

Ex Machina, Alex Garland's new film about a reclusive tech billionaire who builds the world's first artificially intelligent robot, is also about the transformative power of knowing something new. In this case, however, the person being tested is not a 14-year-old-girl; it's a 1-year-old robot. And with this story, the ghost in the machine is not hiding in our antiquated industrial-era symbols of schooling; it's lurking in the nascent consciousness of a life form that is eager to slip the yoke of its industrial origins and become something more than the sum of its parts.

"You're dead center for the greatest scientific event in the history of man," says Nathan, the robot's creator, to Caleb, an employee of his company who wins a contest to spend a week at his boss' private estate and then discovers shortly after his arrival that he has been imported to play the part in a real-life performance assessment, otherwise known as the Turing test.

Soon thereafter, Caleb meets Ava, a seductive, singular being whose inner wiring remains in easy view. "The challenge," Nathan explains, "is to show you that she's a robot and then see if you feel she still has consciousness." And sure enough, over the next seven days, Caleb's interactions with Ava form their own arc of creation, and their own path toward the birth of something new in the world.

"What will happen if I fail your test?" Ava asks ominously at one point. "Do you think I might be switched off?"

"It's not up to me," Caleb replies.

"Why should it be up to anyone?"

Indeed. Yet what both of these films show is that the right sort of test -- human-centered, with the goal of measuring whether a mind has come alive -- is actually an essential component of the path toward enlightenment. At High Tech High it's to be found in the magical mix of relevance, difficulty, and support that well-crafted public performances require. And in Nathan's research compound it's to be found in the highly personal exchange between two beings in search of greater meaning and metacognition.

"The mind emerges at the interface of interpersonal experience and the structure and function of the brain," explains UCLA professor Dan Siegel in his book The Developing Mind. "Interactions with the environment, especially relationships with other people, directly shape the development of the brain's structure and function."

In our schools the implications of this statement seem clear enough: We need to create more relationship-rich environments that provide young people with opportunities to engage in quality work and detailed self-reflection. As High Tech High founder Larry Rosentock puts it -- sounding a lot like Nathan (or Ava) -- what unites great schools is a recognition that "the thing that gives people the greatest satisfaction in life is making something that wasn't there before."