Ex Machina

A young lad Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at an Internet search giant Blue Book, wins a competition to spend a week at the remote, private mountain retreat of the company’s prodigious but reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Upon his arrival, Caleb learns that there is much more to the lucrative prize than enjoying his host’s hospitality and hanging out with one of the brightest minds of his generation. Nathan has chosen him to be the human component in a Turing Test-like experiment, charging Caleb with evaluating the capabilities, intelligence and ultimately the presence of consciousness of Nathan’s latest model of artificially intelligent android.

Ava is a highly advanced android whose artificial intelligence emerges from the billions of expressions typed daily into the world’s biggest Internet search engine.

Caleb is soon ushered to a room with a shatterproof glass partition in the middle and introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a highly advanced humanoid android whose artificial intelligence emerges as a product of the billions of expressions the millions of humans are typing into Blue Book, the world’s biggest Internet search engine. When asked, Ava tells Caleb that he is the first man she met apart from Nathan, and that she spent her whole (short) life in the small room on the other side of the unbreakable glass wall, often dreaming about going out and finding a busy pedestrian intersection in a city, where she can observe ordinary people going about their daily lives.

When questioned by Nathan about his first impressions, Caleb says that he is immensely awed, but he voices his reservations as to the validity of the Turing Test, since he can see the tested subject. (In the real Turing Test all participants are separated from each other (e.g. by a partition), so that the tester cannot see whether he deals with a human or an AI. The tester then engages in natural language conversation with the subject: a human or an AI designed to generate answers indistinguishable from that of a human being. If the tester cannot reliably tell the AI from the human, the AI has passed the test.) Nathan agrees, but explains that they are long past the Turing Test stage. He wants Caleb to evaluate Ava and, at the end of the evaluation, let him know whether he still thinks that Ava possesses a self-aware thought-process and expresses a human-like behaviour, despite knowing beforehand that she is a mere android endowed with Artificial Intelligence.

Caleb meets with Ava again and she starts flirting with him. There is a power cut and Ava, taking an advantage of the fact that the CCTV cameras which Nathan uses to observe their interactions are offline, unexpectedly lowers her voice and warns Caleb not to trust Nathan. She also reveals to Caleb that it is her who is causing these power blackouts.

Intrigued, Caleb asks Nathan what he will do with Ava should she fails the test, and he says that her AI will be updated with a newer version, resulting in her memory being wiped out. This is an upsetting prospect for Caleb who during the testing sessions develops a fondness for Ava.

Caleb asks Nathan what he will do with Ava should she fails the test, and he says that her AI will be updated with a newer version, resulting in her memory wipe-out.

Throughout his final session with Ava, and during yet another power failure, Caleb reveals to her that he plans to re-program the security system so that during the power outage, instead of locking all the doors, the system will open them all. He explains to Ava that he intends on using Nathan’s fondness for a tipple and getting Nathan stone-drunk before locking him in his room. He asks Ava to trigger a power cut next day at 10 o’clock in order to escape with him.

Ex Machina asks the ultimate questions: What is intelligence; How you define self-awareness; and: What makes us human.

The next morning Caleb wants to go through with his plan and pours a drink for Nathan proposing a toast, but he refuses to drink and reveals to Caleb that he became increasingly suspicious about the power blackouts, and, not being a simpleton, hid a battery-powered camera inside Ava’s room, and therefore saw through Caleb’s plan. Nathan also admits that Ava’s facial features were modelled on Caleb’s sexual preferences, resourced from his web porn searches.

But the biggest shock comes when Caleb learns that he, in fact, did not win any competition. The whole thing was a stitch-up and he was chosen solely because he is a single, girlfriend-less, goody two-shoes deemed to be best suited for a final test of Ava’s self-awareness, with Nathan devising a trial where Ava must exploit Caleb in order to escape, using all she’s got: intelligence, cunningness, even her sexuality.

This also answers the question which Caleb posed previously, i.e. whether Nathan programmed Ava’s AI to flirt with him, reasoning that it ought to be either this, or the flirting must be self-emergent, which would be a proof of Ava’s self-awareness. Nathan then told him that there is also a third possibility, that is, Ava might pretend that she is infatuated with him.

By the end, Caleb’s mind is so messed-up that he starts to question if he himself isn’t an android playing a part in some Nathan’s twisted AI test.

Nathan concludes that Ava is not in love with Caleb, but is only using him as means of escape, and he celebrates this as the final proof that she is truly artificially intelligent and self-aware, deeming the test a resounding success. That is, only until the moment when the clock hits 10:00, the power goes off, and Nathan, to his sheer horror, learns that Caleb reprogrammed the security system already the previous day.

Ultimately, the emotional intelligence of Ava proves vastly more sophisticated, human-like and therefore also deceptive than the two men could have ever imagined.

The film, directorial debut of Alex Garland, (who is a screenwriter of several other outstanding science fiction films, 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go amongst others) is a stylish and clever science fiction thriller, that deals with the similar issues as the not-accidentally similarly-named British sci-fi film The Machine (which packs in a lot more action scenes but lacks the depth and sophistication of Ex Machina), that is: What is intelligence; How you define self-awareness; and ultimately: What makes us human. Highly recommended.

TRIVIA: Sonoya Mizuno, playing in the film Nathan’s cybernetic servant-cum-sex slave Kyoko, is a ballerina dancing for the Scottish Ballet.