Ex Machina Brims With Robot Fun and Mind Games

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In upcoming sci-fi film, Ex Machina, writer and director Alex Garland gets ambitious. All we’ve got is a trailer so far. But it’s a tantalizing clip that manages to run through a range of cinematic AI and robotics themes—and hints at a plot twist.

Garland is known for writing The Beach (the novel), 28 Days Later, and Sunshine, but this is his directorial debut. And if you like watching well-rendered female robots playing mind games with innocent young programmers—save the date.

What will Ex Machina be like in full? No idea. Perhaps a little Species, a little Terminator (with a dash of Moon?)—though the trailer does make us question whether the AI Ava is in fact evil, or something else more twisted and diabolical is going on. The film also appears to cover a few intriguing future tech topics, though story and suspense may trump depth.

The protagonist, a young programmer, is brought to his CEO’s elegantly futuristic mountain compound to serve as judge in a Turing test. Eccentric billionaire polymath secretly working on AI and robotics? Check! Time to show off his work.

It seems a little odd our billionaire only calls one judge. Most Turing test rules require multiple interrogators. Also, Turing test judges are supposed to interview several real people and a machine, and identify which is which. Knowing ahead of time that you’re evaluating a machine (and only a machine) kind of undermines the test. At least as Alan Turing conceived it.

But never mind. The man is protective of his new creation and distrustful of people—he lives alone in a giant compound building robots for crying out loud. We can understand his departure from protocol.

The trailer runs down a list of classic future tech themes: The blurred line between man and machine, an AI of questionable motives, the ethical boundaries of consciousness and personhood, and the future obsolescence of humans.

Though all these philosophical refrains may run through the movie, it looks like the story will turn on that perennial plot device: love. Or more specifically, machine love. It’s a subject that received a delicate, thoughtful treatment in Spike Jonze’s film Her because, well, the AI Samantha didn’t have a body. But we aren’t sure there will be quite as much subtlety here.

As our innocent young programmer falls for his new robot acquaintance, the mind games begin. Who’s playing who? Should he trust Ava or his CEO? And then the twist. Is that a flash of our protagonist making an incision in his own arm?

Why in heaven’s name would he do that? Oh, we think you know. (Or do you? Or do we?)

The technology might be a little fanciful and the treatment more entertaining than accurate—but that doesn’t mean it won’t still be a great science fiction psychological thriller.

Image Credit: A24/Ex Machina/YouTube

Jason is managing editor of Singularity Hub. He did research and wrote about finance and economics before moving on to science, technology, and the future. He is curious about pretty much everything, and sad he'll only ever know a tiny fraction of it all.