Apr 18, 2015

Alicia Machina

 Alicia Vikander as Ava the robot.
Shanahan: "The bot looks fake."
Garland: "Just add more mesh!"
I grew up reading books and I don't usually enjoy what pa$$e$ for entertainment in Hollywood. What about the current artificial intelligence flick Ex Machina?

In my golden age of science fiction I was exposed to several "genius in the basement" science fiction stories (such as Ed Smith's classic space opera, Skylark) that quickly soured me on plots like the one in Ex Machina. Science fiction magic: a lone geek in his garage can create some amazing new piece of technology faster than teams of collaborators that include thousands of scientists and engineers. Sure.

In Ex Machina, we are asked to assume that some nerd who once made a search engine has now built a conscious machine in his basement. What would you do with a conscious robot? Answer: this is the 21$t century, when "the greate$t advance ever achieved in $cience" must be quickly made into a movie. Ka-ching!

The Garland Test: can a Hollywood flick $ay anything
intelligent or would that $poil the bottom line?
But seriously, is Ex Machina a sign of progress, possibly a harbinger of better films to come in a new era when Hollywood producers discover that they can do more in a science fiction film than just blow things up and have goofy lightsaber duels?

Ex Machina ventures into the science fiction genre just long enough to tap into one of the classic themes of speculative fiction and then Alex Garland makes an end run for the bank. From my perspective as a reader of science fiction stories, Ex Machina breaks no interesting new ground in the domain of Sci Fi artificial intelligence stories, but what about the movie-going public?

Alicia Vikander
Full disclosure: I have not seen Ex Machina. I've read about 50 reviews of the flick, in search for a reason to possibly see it, but so far I have come up empty. This is the danger of actually reading science fiction. In comparison to the robots in published science fiction stories that were written in the previous millennium, today's Hollywood robots seem like a joke (just add in a billion search engine results and...instant consciousness!).
Eva (original tweet)

Ex Machina isn't a movie that advances what has been said about artificial intelligence within the science fiction genre, but it is a film that demonstrates the intelligence of Hollywood film makers who know how to make money. Ex Machina is an exposé showing how a classic topic of science fiction can be commercialized. In this film, Alicia plays the role of Ava, a robot that is depicted as only having part of a body, but "she" was endowed with the two key body parts that are often needed to help a Hollywood starlet pump up the box office cash flow.

             "Sucks that this passes for cerebral." -Jonathan Fuhrman

Thanks for the
bewbs, Jock.
I love Sci Fi plots that involve men being manipulated by women (prototype: The End of Eternity). I'm intrigued by the idea that Ava has been programmed and equipped so as to make Caleb fall in love with "her". But would I pay the price and take the time to sit in a theater just to see a nerd be tricked in this way? No.

In The End of Eternity, Asimov used the seductress plot element to move us towards a destination in the story. As far as I can tell, in Ex Machina there is no destination. I know, I know, in Hollywood it just has to look good on the screen....unless you are going for "edgy" in which case it is not wise to make anything look too good. I understand that in the movie Ava demonstrates that "she" knows how to put on a dress, but, sorry, "her" lumpy robo-boobs are on the wrong side of the uncanny valley. Maybe the biggest thing that Ex Machina offers a science nerd like me is a second dictionary meaning for "uncanny valley". I suppose Garland made the correct visual choices for a Gothic horror movie.

A 2 "stars" review by Roger Ebert
One reviewer compared Ex Machina to S1m0ne. Maybe we should define the Verniere Test: if, after ten years, even just one movie critic can remember your movie then it passes the Verniere Test. Let's look back at Ex Machina in 2025 and see if it passes the Verniere Test.

Why is it that these kinds of "science fiction" films tell us more about Hollywood than they do about science?

Oh, right, real scientists and engineers are boring, but Hollywood depictions of dot com wunderkinder CEOs are fascinating. I keep forgetting that.

I was tempted to call this blog post "Giant and Deadly" in honor of an old Isaac Asimov story in which he depicted clueless asexual aliens as imagining that the bulging breasts of women are dangerous weapons, rather like the antlers of rams, and useful for combat between individuals who are competing for mates.

One more alternate title: Robot Dreams of a Drunken Mad Scientist. Because in Hollywood, the only way to make scientists and engineers "believable" is to make them act crazy.

Ilia, the Deltan
Baldly Going...
In the case of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a bald Persis Khambatta gave movie reviewers something to talk about. We were asked to believe that the alien Deltans were so sexually dangerous that as members of Starfleet they had to practice celibacy in order to avoid harming Captain Kirk human crew members.

I'm afraid there are reasons why we humans, as "naked apes" still have hair on our heads.

  "Ex Machina is a blandly goodlooking film, but doesn't bear close examination" -Chris Knipp

Rayna Kapec, version #16
In the original Star Trek television series, the way to quickly show that Rayna Kapec was a robot was to  show Kirk and viewers one of her earlier versions, a robotic test model that had no hair.

Why was the hairless Ava of Ex Machina given a creepy appearance? Just to make the point of how easy it is to make a tech geek like Caleb have empathy for an AI creature?

"...some of you will find the robot sexy..."

Apparently Ex Machina is sexy in Erie. I'm not sure
what this tells us about men & women in Erie.
The video generation.
From what I've seen, Garland's choice of a bald Ava was "creepy", not sexy, but, as we say, there is no accounting for individual taste.
Carl Sagan's Contact.

My imagination is working against me: the idea of R-rated robot full frontal nudity is not going to get me into a theater. But nobody in Hollywood tries to sell theater tickets to a middle aged book reader like me, not when there is a whole new generation that grew up playing video games rather than reading.

Science Fiction, Horror or Fantasy?
I have, in the past, found only a few science fiction films that I can enjoy. Examples: Contact, Bicentennial Man and The Voyage Home. Could I add Ex Machina to that short list? What first puts me off about Ex Machina is the whole "genius in the garage" scenario for magically making a conscious robot, but that could be Hollywood we need to magically get the story started without first taking an audience through 500 years of tiresome scientific research and engineering. What I find harder to swallow is the Hollywood preference for turning artificial intelligences into versions of Frankenstein's monster.

Submarines in space!
Back in the early 20th century, Ed Smith could be excused, perhaps, for imagining that one genius could quickly build a spaceship and then head off into the universe on adventures. However, we now all know that after a century of hard work by millions of scientists and engineers, space travel is still dangerous, expensive and slow.

Mary: "Ava, I am your mother."
Gall's Law
Similarly, the human brain slowly evolved from much simpler systems and a conscious robotic brain is not going to be magically slammed together by Oscar Isaac in his garage. Ex Machina, like Frankenstein, only "works" as science fiction for people who can believe that the myth of the mad genius scientist is a viable foundation for a science fiction story.

R. Dannel Olivaw
What about Isaac Asimov and his stories about robots with human-like intelligence? Asimov wrote about a long process by which huge companies slowly developed robots of increasing complexity. Then, he had to do some hand waving. Andrew's human-like mind was depicted as arising by chance. Similarly, Asimov never really explained how Giskard was given his human-like mind and telepathic powers. However, in Asimov's fictional universe, Han Fastolfe was part of a centuries-long research effort aimed at producing robots with human-like minds.

Asimov was intelligent enough to think of a plot that took artificial intelligence into a new domain of speculative fiction story telling where Daneel had an interesting purpose in life. Asimov's robot stories provided us all with a larger playground for science fiction story telling. In my own case, having long been frustrated by Asimov's sketchy depiction of the history of robotics, so for the Exode Trilogy I provide my own account of the origin of positronic robots.

Hollywood monster movies
Ex Machina tells us much more about the pragmatic reality of film making than it tells a meaningful science fiction story. What passes for science fiction in Hollywood is a homogenized mash-up of horror and fantasy. Given the financial constraints of film making, where someone must invest millions to make a movie, is it possible for someone like Alex Garland to do anything more than use and parade before viewers the same old money-making formulas?

Hollywood "science fiction" films are usually anti-science fiction stories that don't move the human imagination past the state of the art as it was in 1818. Sadly, film$ like Ex Machina contain $cience fiction stories with very little to offer readers who are already familiar with the many published science fiction stories about artificial intelligence.

I, Robot
Writing robot stories and publishing them for the science fiction readers of the previous millennium, Asimov had the freedom to be creative and invent an imaginative future history that included intelligent machines like Daneel. In contrast, Alex Garland, being constrained by the tight programing of the relentless Hollywood ca$h-extraction process, only gives us his angst-inducing version of the genius-working-in-his-garage-stupidly-asphyxiates-himself-the-end plot formula.

Nothing says "Hollywood" more than
the will to sell tickets.
However, for people who consume their science fiction in the format of Hollywood flicks, Ex Machina has  set the turnstiles whirling and I'm glad to see that about 90% of movie-goers report enjoying Ex Machina. Sadly, I'm in the 10%.

"The First Flawless movie ever made" -Joel Croyle

We, robots
The Croyle paradox: how a perfect film can fail to interest people who read and love science fiction stories. I exist in a different reality than the people who rush out to theaters every week. Among all the Hollywood hype, much of the online commentary about Ex Machina is absurd, for example: "...companies like Google or Apple are certainly capable of creating the future we see in this film even today". As Mr. Barnum suggested, human nature might best be characterized by gullibility, which can't be ignored during any Turing Test.

Related Reading: old school AI stories...The Robots of Dawn - Requiem for Methuselah - Bicentenial Man - Forward the Foundation
2025: Ex Machina VII, terminators travel back in time to 2014 where they get to dance and try to stop production of the first movie in the series.
Deviations ex machina. See "Ex Machina" by dark-spider, Ex Machina - Movie Wallpaper by elclon, Ess Ex Machina by plunderbunny, Caro Ex Machina 3 by DRSPhotography and "Dea ex Machina" by DJMartynov
"...a disappointment like virtually all sci-fi films. I simply despise the usage of technology as a prop"

The Ex Machina website, one week after wide release of the film. Died in 2014? Robots just can't come?

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