#SciFiSciPol – Ex Machina Address Robots And Gilded Cages

I finally saw Ex Machina, which recently opened in the United States.  It’s a minimalist film, with few speaking roles and a plot revolving around an intelligence test.  Of the robot movies out this year, it has received the strongest reviews, and it may take home some trophies during the next awards season.  Shot in Norway, the film is both lovely to watch and tricky to engage.  I finished the film not quite sure what the characters were thinking, and perhaps that’s a lesson from the film.

Unlike Chappie and Automata, the intelligent robot at the center of Ex Machina is not out in the world.  Ava has been developed, presumably alone, by a technology CEO meant to evoke people like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and/or Mark Zuckerberg.  The CEO brings in one of his employees to test how ‘human’ Ava is, and the film engages with what it means for someone – human or human-made – to have ‘strong’ intelligence.

I don’t expect viewers to come out of this film with definitive answers about artificial intelligence.  I think the film was more interested in having the audience engage with the questions and at least poke at their assumptions.  But I’m not a psychologist, I’m a policy analyst.

How does this film address science and technology policy?  There is a throwaway line about surveillance via cell phone, but the most direct engagement with policy matters concerns how the robots are developed.  Locked away in a private research lab, the robots lack autonomy, and the existence of this work appears to be unknown outside of the facility.  Without getting into the details, the resolution of the film suggests to me that keeping the project under wraps would not be well received in the public.  There is an implication that the need for autonomy is connected to fully-formed intelligence, regardless of whether a being is organic or robotic.

I recommend this film.  It’s far from the kind of action-oriented film that most of this year’s robot movies are, and I think that choice makes it easier to introduce and explore the ideas around what it means to be intelligent.  The film also becomes an interesting mystery that managed to surprise me at least once.  Even if you’re not interested in thinking about how to manage artificial intelligence (if so, why are you here?), I believe you’ll find the film compelling enough to enjoy it.

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