Taking God Out of the Machine

Taking God Out of the Machine

Ex Machina and the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence

You’re immediately drawn to her.  You believe in her.  You feel she loves you.  You experience the vicarious pleasure of being with another person in a way that only movies can do for you—the emotions she conveys, the looks, the smiles—only she’s not a person, Ava is a machine.

Alex Garland’s Ex Machina asks:  What does it means to be human?  What does it mean to have intelligence?  Does it mean having imagination, empathy, self-awareness?  Ava appears to exhibit all of these qualities, and more.

Ava has been created by Nathan, a reclusive billionaire who is also the owner of Blue Book, a thinly disguised fictional version of Google, as we are told it is the world’s most popular internet search engine, processing an average of ninety-four per cent of all internet search requests.


Caleb has won the lottery at Blue Book, the company where he works, to participate in a Turing test to see if he believes Ava is actually human.  The much-anticipated moment where a machine will finally attain to and soon outstrip the level of intelligence of humans, known as “the singularity,” is expected to be a major tipping point in human civilization.

As Caleb says to Nathan:  “If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man.  It’s the history of gods.”  In other words, if the history of the gods has been that of creating wo/man in their image, and if wo/man subsequently creates an intelligent machine in her/his own image, then surely s/he has rewritten the history of the gods?  Perhaps.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Caleb is convinced that Ava has intelligence—human-like intelligence, and consciousness—and so are we as the viewer.  This is the mark of a great science fiction movie, of any great movie really: the lines between reality and unreality are so significantly blurred that we are participators in the story ourselves.

We believe in Ava because we relate to her as we do to other human beings.  When Caleb reveals that he is testing her she asks what will happen if she fails the test.  When she realizes that she might be switched-off, she asks:  “Why is it up to anyone?  Do you have people who test you, and might switch you off?“

Philosopher Nick Bostrom has made the important observation that at no point in the discussion about creating artificial intelligence has it been asked whether it should be pursued in the first place.  When Caleb asks the question “Why,” Nathan responds somewhat incredulously that it is “inevitable.”  He sees it as part-and-parcel of the notion of progress that has been with us since the Enlightenment.  The idea is that progress is an indispensible aspect of humanity, and it must be realized in order to create endlessly expanding waves of human betterment.  Either that or irrelevance or, worse yet, extinction.

Ex Machina doesn’t provide neat answers.  But, like all great movies, it poses some deeply probing questions.  What does it mean to live in a society where companies such as Blue Book have access to all our profiles, and not only can they use that information to target-market to us (as if that were not insidious enough), they can also use it to surveillance us (as investigative journalist Glen Greenwald has revealed, companies such as Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Skype, YouTube, and Apple work hand-in-glove with the NSA)?

What does it mean for a company such as Blue Book to have unfettered access to information on private human interactions in designing technologies whose benefits and harms are completely unknown?  “Almost every cell phone has a microphone, a camera, and a means to transmit data.  So I switched on all the mikes and cameras, across the entire fucking planet, and redirected the data through Blue Book.  Boom.  A limitless resource of facial and vocal interaction.”

And of course the central question: What does it mean to be human?

This discussion revolves around the idea of consciousness.  If Ava can be shown to be conscious, then, it is assumed, she has human-level intelligence.  What does this mean from an Islamic viewpoint?  From the historic-Islamic perspective the intellect is where the light of the Divine shines.  According to the language of the Quran, light is the very metaphor of God: “light upon light.”  And knowledge and intelligence are seen as inseparable from the knowledge of God.

This understanding of the inseparability of consciousness and the knowledge of God has historically been central to all the world’s major religious traditions.  One of the 20th century’s greatest minds, Albert Einstein, believed in a God behind worldly phenomena.  In other words, there is a vertical dimension to our otherwise horizontal, terrestrial existence.

Can Ava experience such a vertical dimension?  Can she experience and/or know God?  Does it matter whether or not she can experience and/or know God in our largely a-theistic (and anti-theistic) society?  Many would argue “No.”  If we take Darwinian evolution seriously, it would be said—and many do say—that all that matters is our “horizontal” march through time.  All that matters—all that can possibly matter—is for the fittest to survive, as they inevitably will and must.

In a poignant moment in Ex Machina (and the movie is chockfull of poignant moments), when Nathan reveals to Caleb that he will most probably have to dismantle Ava and try again, as he has already done many times with many other versions, Nathan tries to console Caleb with a seemingly off-hand:  “Feel bad for yourself.  One day, the AIs will look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons from the plains of Africa.  An upright ape, living in dust, with crude language and tools.”

Within this horizontal view of our history, of all of history, there is no real space given to ethical considerations that hinder our advancement.  The assumption being that material and technological advancements are clear markers of progress.  This fails to recognize that technology and progress are never morally neutral.  All technologies, from the hammer to the atomic bomb, from the bicycle to depleted-uranium-tipped missiles, assume a certain view of the world, a certain relationship between human beings (or certain classes of human beings), the world, the technology in question, and God (or no-God).

Philosopher Susanne Langer (1895-1985) argues that every intellectual age is defined by the questions it asks, because each age is defined by certain parameters of thought that permit only certain kinds of questions.  The question of “why” create artificial intelligence requires more serious probing and pushing.  There is nothing inevitable about anything in the universe.  Although, following through with certain actions—as Garland strongly suggests—could very well have serious consequences for the future of humanity.

Ex Machina is an exceptional movie on various levels:  it is intellectually sophisticated, emotionally arresting, and visually striking.  It provides a much-needed boost to the sci-fi genre of movies—and to movies in general—when, far-too-often, we have to be content with vacuity and Hollywood schmaltz.

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