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Alex Garland directs Alicia Vikander in Ex_Machina
Alex Garland talks to Alicia Vikander on set of "Ex_Machina"Courtesy of Universal UK

The science behind Ex_Machina

If you're gonna make a movie about AI, do like first-time director Alex Garland did and tap into science

Science writer and broadcaster Dr Adam Rutherford has a degree in evolutionary biology. Advanced neuroscientist Professor Murray Shanahan is an expert in cognitive architecture, with a particular fascination with how consciousness might be recreated artificially. So it probably isn’t surprising that Alex Garland turned to these brilliant scientists in the early days of writing his directorial debut Ex_Machina, to make sure that the ideas he was exploring – regarding human-level intelligence in robots – had some basis in reality.

The film follows computer coder Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), who wins a competition to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac) the reclusive CEO of the company he works for. Caleb thinks he’s in for a relatively relaxing week, until he’s introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot with sophisticated artificial intelligence. Nathan tasks Caleb with testing Ava, to see if she could pass as human. It’s a fascinating set-up, resulting in what’s arguably the greatest AI movie since Blade Runner. So we took our opportunity to talk to Adam and Murray, the experts who helped inspire the film, about their contributions, and what its implications are for the scientific community…

What did you both contribute to the project?

Murray Shanahan: I seem to have contributed – unknown to myself at the time – to the conception of the film. Alex had read a book I’d written, which treats consciousness and how it’s realised in the brain. I didn’t know him, but I knew of him, so it was amazing to get an email from this famous author, and he said, ‘I’ve just read your book and I’m working on this film about AI and consciousness and I’d like to meet up and talk to you about it.’ Then he sent me the script and I looked over the script and gave some minor comments and corrections from a scientific angle. Mainly he was interested in getting a sanity check, in particular the treatment of the philosophical issues, did it make sense, did they hang together and so on. And they did, so I didn't have much to say other than ‘Wow! Good!’

Adam Rutherford: My take was more tonal. Alex wanted to accurately emulate how scientists talk. There isn’t a display of science in the movie; he doesn’t explain the mechanics of Ava’s robotics, or even – outside of saying it was derived from the Bluebook search engine – how her consciousness works. But the ideas that underly it are incredibly robust. He talks about the Turing test, he talks about Mary in the black and white room. They’re really watertight, important ideas that underly the whole field of consciousness studies. Getting the tone right of how scientists interact with each other is really important. There are no moments in Ex_Machina when someone who works in the field would hear them say something and wince. And that happens in movies a lot.

Fake science in movies is annoying for a lot of actual scientists

Adam Rutherford: It is! Sometimes scientists get a little propriety and pedantic about science being onscreen and wrong. It doesn’t bother me that much unless it’s idiotic. I don’t mind stuff that’s made up, Ava does not exist and we are decades away from something as sophisticated as her. What really bugs me is stuff like Prometheus, where the science being displayed isn’t just wrong – it’s idiotic. It’s not so much wincing as it is facepalming.

Murray Shanahan: One of the things that really works in Ex_Machina for me is there’s quite a transition between what is futuristic and what is not futuristic. Alex says the film is set 10 minutes into the future, so we don’t see anything particularly futuristic. It isn’t one of these Star Wars sets. But when it comes to the technology, we see this stuff that’s really out there and weird and interesting, like the blue gel Ava’s brain is made of. It contrasts very much with something like Transcendence, which is an awful film. Johnny Depp’s brain is uploaded into the computer, and what you see is just a rack of ordinary computers – it doesn’t make sense.

“There are genuine safety concerns about AI, if we were to achieve human-level AI then there are some very good academic arguments for why things might go horribly wrong” – Murray Shanahan

So many films and novels predict that the evolution of artificial intelligence will lead to the end of mankind. Why do we pursue it, what’s the main benefit?

Murray Shanahan: Of course, you don’t want to believe films and novels just because it makes good science fiction doesn’t mean that’s what the outcome is going to be. On the other hand, there are genuine safety concerns about AI, if we were to achieve human-level AI then there are some very good academic arguments for why things might go horribly wrong. But it’s not what we see in films, these are carefully argued scenarios for how things could go wrong. Nick Bostrom in Oxford has just published his book Superintelligence, which describes very carefully the way things could go wrong. So why do we carry on? Firstly, because many people will think that isn’t what’s going to happen, we can control it and ensure safety. In fact, one of the key jobs of AI engineers and researchers as we get closer to that kind of thing, will be to think very carefully about safety. So let’s assume we can control the safety problem – there are huge economic incentives for this kind of thing. Human-level AI would allow us to solve many of the world’s problems.

I felt so much for Ava in Ex_Machina. If economic incentives are the main thrust behind the creation of human-level AIs, is it the destiny of artificial beings to be servile? That would be quite cruel

Adam Rutherford: These are serious questions that we’ll have to address in 100 years time, when we have things that are fully autonomous. What sort of rights would we afford those things when they exist? I find it difficult to say anything other than Ava deserves all the same rights as a human.

Murray Shanahan: There are different ways that you might do it. One way would result in something that is conscious and capable of suffering, but you might also build something that has human-level AI and is not conscious and is not capable of suffering. There is no conceptual reason why just because something is super-smart, it has to be conscious and capable of suffering. But in this case, if we were to create something that was conscious and capable of suffering then the fact it was an artefact that we’d built wouldn’t matter, we would have to accord it the same rights as anything that’s capable of suffering.

Some people have labelled the film misogynist, but I found it feminist. What’s your take on it? 

Adam Rutherford: I’ve seen those comments. I find it baffling. I’ve long since given up on trying to understand what people are going to take away from something I’ve created when your intentions were so clear and couldn’t be more explicit. My understanding is that Alex intended it to be a deeply feminist film. I read it as such. Some people’s problems arise from that she’s heavily sexualised, she’s created by one man for another and the lady closet scene, which is profoundly disturbing…

Murray Shanahan: How more feminist can you get than that? It’s showing up men’s relations to women in a very bad light, in a very disturbing way, very overtly so.

Adam Rutherford: And she’s empowered by her consciousness.

Murray Shanahan: The only way you could find it misogynistic is if you somehow identified with Nathan and felt that the film was somehow on Nathan’s side. 

I wonder if the conflict from some people has come from the way the male gaze in cinema objectifies women, here an object is being feminised.

Adam Rutherford: Having read the script and seen a penultimate cut, I didn’t think about the male gaze too much. But when I saw the next cut, which was almost final, there was just some SFX to do, that was in my head. I think they did an extremely good job of trying to avoid that idea of the male gaze. It’s important that she’s sexual, it’s fundamental to the film that she’s a sexual entity and she’s extraordinarily attractive even with her inner-workings exposed…

Murray Shanahan: You say that, but she’s very innocent, it’s an innocent portrayal. She’s very beautiful, but it’s not that much of a sexualised portrayal in many ways.

Adam Rutherford: I was very conscious of ‘How are you shooting her, how are you making her look?’ and I thought it wasn’t obvious.

Ex_Machina is out in cinemas on January 21st