One of the long-awaited films I have been eager to see is Ex Machina. As I got up from the theater I could feel a stiffness in one of my knees and it is was there that I begin to formulate this post. To start we must unravel the title Ex Machina from the phrase Deus Ex Machina roughly translated as God from the Machine. In one of the quotable lines in the film, “to erase the line between man and machine is to obscure the line between men and gods”. This draws us in to Rene Descartes comment in his Discourses that “the body is a machine that was made by the hands of God”. One of the questions (there are many questions) that pervades the film is what is a machine?
We are very familiar with the idea of Descartes substance dualism which is still considered the reigning vulgar understanding of how the mind and the body relate to the outside. The mind for Descartes was incorporeal and was not subject to mechanical laws. The mind was separate from the body. However, Descartes actually did ask the question that Ex Machina is asking as well:
We can certainly conceive of a machine so constructed that it utters words, and even utters words which correspond to bodily actions causing a change in its organs (e.g., if you touch it in one spot it asks you what you want of it, if you touch it in another it cries out that you are hurting it, and so on). But it is not conceivable that such a machine should produce different arrangements of words so as to give an appropriately meaningful answer to what is said in its presence, as the dullest of men can do…even though such machines might do some things as well as we do them, or perhaps even better, they would inevitably fail in others, which would reveal that they were acting not through understanding but only from the disposition for each particular action: hence it is for all practical purposes impossible for a machine to have enough different organs to make it act in all the contingencies of life in the way in which our reason makes us act.
So according to Descartes a machine would be unable to exhibit adaptive behavior which is our glowing achievement as a species. Even in our modern AI linguistic flexibility is still quite stunted. In somewhat AI language this problem is titled the Frame Problem, the problem is a problem in first order logic where adaptability and randomness are not able to be programmed in a usable way or in some cases a moral way because of the ever changing and randomness of any situation. Consider Paul Churchland’s discussion of tic tac toe to make our point. There are only 9 boxes on the tic tac toe board but there are 362, 880 ways of filling it up. This problem is important for our understanding of Ava in Ex Machina. Can Ava make decisions that will consider the ever changing human behavior of the other two protagonist in the movie?
Here Wittgenstein writes:
I may recognize a genuine loving look, distinguish it from a pretended one (and here there can, of course, be a ‘ponderable’ confirmation of my judgment). But I may be quite incapable of telling the difference.
Ludwig Wittgenstein was brought up quite often in Ex Machina because of the nature of his ideas and how it relates to Ava’s relationship with Caleb the stereotypical programmer. With a nod to Sir Geoffrey Jefferson’s oration on June 9th of 1949:
Not until a machine can write a sonnet or compose a concerto because of thoughts and emotions felt, and not by the chance fall of symbols, could we agree that machine equals brain–that is, not only write it but know that it had written it. No mechanism could feel (and not merely artificially signal, an easy contrivance) pleasure at its success, grief when it valves fuse, be warmed by flattery, be made miserable by its mistakes, be charmed by sex, be angry or miserable when it cannot get what it wants
Ava and Caleb explore the nature of language and cognition. The nature of language in the sense that all of language is ambiguous, and Wittgenstein’s idea surrounding the “illusory essences” that language conjures. As Wittgenstein argues and Ava shows the idea that language is located in a spatial temporal inside is false, and meaning is not a something but instead a relation. Caleb falsely believed that Ava’s language meant something, but in all relations the Symbolic in Lacanian terms is closely tied to the Imaginary. This makes perfect sense because not only Ava the AI seductress (is she really a seductress) is playing a language game but every human relation is a language game, in that we believe in hallucinatory essences in signifiers, they always mean something to the one who speaks, each message comes back to you in a different form. This again relates to desire, we want something from the interlocutor, Caleb wanted Ava to recognize him, not to be programmed to care for him but instead to truly want him. However what becomes extremely clear in this movie is that the director is asking the question that Wittgenstein asked as well, and that is can humans pass the Turing test? Do we ever really know how one feels towards you when it is impossible for each I to locate an emotion in oneself?