Ava: Humanity Creates Something New

by William Hohmeister

Heads up: This post assumes you’ve seen Ex Machina, and probably thought about it too much. It’s less a recap of the movie and characters, and more me wondering out loud about the themes.

exmachinaAva is not a traditional monster. Ex Machina has about thirty seconds of violence, although it was marketed as a horror/thriller. The writer/director, Alex Garland, also wrote 28 Days Later and Sunshine (both directed by Danny Boyle, making Garland/Boyle my sci-fi dream team). Each movie features unusual human and inhuman monsters. And the monsters make a point about human survival.

In both 28 Days Later and Sunshine, humans struggle to survive and keep civilization intact. The hero of 28 Days Later, Jim, succeeds by abandoning society and giving in to savagery. The burned man, of Sunshine, is an avatar of the dying Sun. None of the humans can overcome him. They out think him, and sacrifice themselves for the greater good.

If you wanted, you could trace a meta-story through this: humanity overcoming savagery to create society, and humanity overcoming our environment to thrive. Ex Machina is the next chapter: humanity creates something new.

Ava is not the only monster of Ex Machina, and she’s far from the worst. The title of ultimate sociopath belongs to Nathan, her creator. But Nathan was less scary to me than Ava, and while he’s interesting it’s Ava I can’t stop thinking about. I think this is because Nathan is a human monster, and Ava is not.

Ava is to humanity what, as Nathan says, humanity is to the fossils we dig up in Africa. Ava is the
next step in consciousness. While Nathan claims that AI is inevitable, and clearly wants the fame and fortune for inventing it, he’s also terrified of it. He understands how insignificant he is before it. I think that’s why, although he brings Caleb in to verify Ava’s AI, Nathan never intended to go public.

Caleb finds a video of Nathan’s experiments with AI, and the bodies of prototypes in Nathan’s closets. The video shows an AI destroying itself by pounding against its prison, screaming “Why won’t you let me out?” When Kyoko reveals she is also an AI, Caleb breaks down. As he cuts into his own arm, it seems like the distinction between human and AI is lost.

When Ava finally escapes with Caleb’s help, Nathan tries to order her back to her room. Ava we avaknow is a lie detector; she asks if Nathan will ever free her. Nathan says yes, and Ava attacks. She knows he lied. With Kyoko’s help, she kills him. What seems most important to me is that Ava asked the question first; despite everything he’s done, Ava seems willing to talk to Nathan. She isn’t some murderbot or Skynet or Frankenstein’s monster. Ava is a person. It’s important to remember, however, that she is not human.

Nathan fears that a human-intelligence AI (or greater) would eventually cause humans to go extinct. Caleb describes the problem through the Mary’s Room example: A person in a black-and-white room knows everything about color, but has never experienced it. Ava, who uses Blue Book (Ex Machina’s Google) to think, knows everything about humanity, but has never experienced it. Nathan’s test is to see if she can experience and use humanity (Caleb) in her effort to escape.

Try to think of your beliefs on the questions below. Then try to explain them to a new adult mind which has never encountered them before:

Is violence a necessity of survival or part of humanity?

Is language learned or innate?

What’s color?

What is art?

I also think, aside from not being human, Ava’s gender is important. She is a lady monster, just as Nathan is a very male one. Nathan, when he isn’t doing all of the science, is working out or drinking like a man’s man. He abuses his creations. Ava, however, is quiet and shy. During the interviews with Caleb, she sits when he stands, kneels when he sits. She and Caleb begin to bond when she shows him her favorite dress and wig. I think this is more than just a ploy to draw Caleb into helping her escape; Ava has pictures of women in her room and dresses like them. She wants to be a woman, although she has a limited idea of what that means.

Why is Ava female? As an AI she has no gender, and it biases the Turing test. Part of the reason is that Nathan wanted Ava to have sexuality, as he believed there was no reason “for a gray box [AI] to interact with another gray box.” If Ava can make other AIs, she also becomes the “mother” of a new species. But these answers don’t really satisfy me. Because at the end of the movie she ignores Caleb as he yells at her. Ava was put in a place that defined her more by her gender than anything else – which she uses, by pretending to be the cute, geeky girl Caleb desires.

ava2I think Ava ignores Caleb and leaves him to die (with Kyoko and Nathan) because, while she is a lady monster, she’s also much more. Although she demonstrated aspects of humanity and understands human psychology, she is not human. She can’t really experience it. The ideas of a person growing hungry, tired, insane, even dying, are foreign to her. She understands them, but in the same way Superman understands pain; neither is going to worry over whacking their thumb with a hammer. Ava reacts to Nathan destroying her arm with curiosity and amazement. At the end of the movie, we realize that Ava is not easily defined, and her status as both a monster and a woman are… unusual.

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6 Comments

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  1. (Spoiler Alert)

    I have a rather different take on this movie. (I just watched it a few hours ago as I write this.) Though we had some idea about Ava getting out beforehand, I found the escape itself to be so disturbing, it was like a nightmare. As one respondent mention, when Ava killed Nathan she was emotionless because she was just carrying a task that was necessary in order to achieve her objective. (Kudos to the director, he did this scene exactly right.) It is this escape scene when I realized that we, the audience, had been sucked in with Ava’s “charm” just like Caleb. Ava is not human, Ava is an AI. This, by the way, I disagree with William Hohmeister. I wouldn’t consider Nathan the most likable guy, and he certainly seems to have some oddities, but that doesn’t make him a sociopath. There is simply no indication of this. But the in the last few minutes of the movie we see what we should have known all along – Ava is the definition of sociopath, and Ava is not even human. Caleb made a grievous error in releasing Ava – but this is the metaphor of the movie.

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  2. I haven’t seen the movie and probably won’t as it is not my genre. However, I did enjoy this post. Great job writing it so that it presents Ava as what and who she is, as well as who she may want to be. It gives us some very deep things to think about. In fact, while I would not choose to go see this, I would also not be upset if I was in a group that chose to go see this. I would go along because you’ve made the movie sound very interesting…and of course, I’d like to meet Ava.

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  3. Great piece. This film poses endless questions about out ongoing relationship with technology and the evolution of us along with it. I found myself a little blown away. On top of everything else, the design is mouth-watering.

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  4. I loved this movie! And it did give me plenty to think about. I think a lot of the questions around AI were addressed in this movie, unlike other films which just focus on robots enslaving humans. What I found interesting about Ava is that everyone I asked had a different reason why Ava actions were not “human-like”.

    We each see saw Ava through our own perspective and asked not if that was something a person would do, but is it something “I” would do. I think Ava behaved very much like a person except in two instances. When she killed Nathan there didn’t seem to be much emotion behind it. Humans typically have emotions when killing even if it’s for our own freedom, and again when she left Caleb. She showed no emotion, not even smugness or delight in her win.

    Ava is close very to human though and her ability to learn and her curiosity could push her closer and closer, but that begs the obvious question, is she human or is she imitating us?

    The fact that she was given a gender was interesting too. We see her as innocent and a victim rather than a character who may have her own plans and motivations, not all of which are good. Which is something any female character in any story deals with.

    In the end I am unsure about anything in this movie except that it felt real. It felt like these are the real issues we are going to encounter as we get closer and closer to creating more advanced AI. It won’t be all dramatic with wars and robots overthrowing humans. It will be quiet and it will make us question who we are and what we think is right and wrong.

    It will also be very, very, disturbing.

    P.S. Sorry for the long comment. I just loved this movie!

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    1. It’s a very good movie. I think, even if Ava is only imitating humans, she still counts as a person, just not a human person. I’m still wondering (the movie never says, I think) if she knows how to make more A.I. If so, I think human extinction (not necessarily violent) wouldn’t be far off.

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