Ex Machina

Ex Machina - image for article by Greg Alder

I watched the film Ex Machina on a flight yesterday. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s essentially about the manipulation of one human by another. At least, that’s what it appears to be.

In the film, a programmer named Caleb Smith wins a company contest to spend a week at the remote estate of the brilliant, reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman.

The week is no holiday, however. The reason Nathan has brought Caleb to his estate is to participate in a Turing test by interacting with a beguiling robot called Ava. The goal is to determine Ava’s intuitive capabilities. Caleb’s task is to find shortcomings in Ava’s programming, to decide if Nathan really has succeeded in creating a robot that can think and feel like a human, express emotion and form opinion.

I won’t spoil the film by revealing the ending. I’ll just say that Ava passes the test – and then some.

In his 1953 book, Science and Human Behavior, B. F. Skinner wrote something I was reminded of whilst watching Ex Machina.

“The real question is not whether machines think but whether men do. The mystery which surrounds a thinking machine already surrounds a thinking man.”

Caleb was participating in a test to determine the emotional thoughts of a robot. B. F. Skinner wondered if humans could be programmed to make rational decisions.

As artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated, more humanoid, is human thought making the same strides in the opposite direction?

I studied psychology, but I’m no behaviorist. My observations certainly won’t stand up to academic scrutiny. But here’s what I think.

Superficially at least, we are capable of rational thought. That is, forming ideas based purely on logic and reasoning. Capable, but not good at.

We are emotional machines. We store feelings as well as numbers. We tend to store the feelings that align with our world view, with the values programmed into us by our parents, school, friends and society.

We seek facts that support our opinions and reject facts that contradict them.

Sometimes we accept certain facts connected with a person or event, but reject others. We might like Donald Trump because his racial views align with our own. We overlook the fact that he’s a dangerous mad man.

The great manipulators find our emotional weak spots, then present us with facts (or masked lies) that reinforce that emotion.

We’ve been programmed to fear terrorism. “Muslims are terrorists.” We fear Muslims.

We’ve been programmed to fear for our jobs. “Mexicans are stealing your jobs.” We fear Mexicans.

If you present a racist with the fact that terrorists represent a tiny fraction of the Muslim faith – or remind them that more mass murderers are young white Christians (in the USA, at least), he or she will reject that fact.

Psychopaths are about the closest we humans get to making emotionless decisions. However, psychopaths are murderers. Not all of them. Just a tiny fraction of them.

Will machines ever be capable of thinking like humans? I don’t know.

Will humans ever be capable of thinking like machines? I hope not.

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1 Comment

  1. says: Phillip Hunt

    I also recently watched Ex-Machina on a flight. Brilliant script and magnificent ending. Quite confronting! Alex Garland (author of the Beach) always produces great work.

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