'Ex Machina': Science vs. Fiction

The new sci-fi thriller raises intriguing questions about science, technology and artificial intelligence.

The new British sci-fi film "Ex Machina," rolling into U.S. theaters over the next few weeks, is the kind of movie that discerning science fiction fans will want to seek out. Directed by Alex Garland (screenwriter of Sunshine and 28 Days Later), "Ex Machina" is a modern-day riff on the Frankenstein story, with high-tech labs, mad scientists and troublesome artificial intelligence (A.I.). It's got some thrilling twists, but "Ex Machina" is more about ideas than action, and it takes its science seriously.

The setup: Computer coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is summoned to the remote research lab of his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive genius founder of a ginormous tech company that doesn't rhyme with Google, but may as well. There, Caleb meets Ava -- a super-advanced A.I. housed in a super-advanced robotic body, played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander. Ava seems nice, Nathan seems unstable, and things quickly get complicated.

As the film begins, Caleb is asked to administer something called the Turing Test to Ava, in an effort to see if she qualifies as a true artificial intelligence. If she does, Nathan says, it will be a milestone in the history of man. "If you've created a conscious machine, that's not the history of man," Caleb says. "That's the history of gods."

The Turing test is plenty real -- it's based on a proposal put forth by computer science pioneer Alan Turing all the way back in 1950. The basic idea is, if a computer can engage in natural language conversation in such a way that it's indistinguishable from a human, then the machine is considered intelligent.

In the film, Nathan claims that he needs Caleb to give the test, as an objective outside observer. But since Caleb already knows that Ava is a machine, the entire scenario seems pointless -- the first indication that weirdness is imminent.

As Caleb learns more about Ava, he discovers that's she's capable of more than just convincing natural language dialogue. For one thing, she can draw. As the story progresses, we see her impressive but slightly disturbing artwork, which is heavy on the pointillism technique. That comes in handy later. "I do drawings every day, but I never know what they're of," Ava says. Creepy.

So can computers and artificial intelligences create art in the real world? As with so many things, it depends on how you define your terms -- and who you ask. Organizations like the Metacreation Lab are dedicated to the idea of generative art, or artificial creativity, in which artists and scientists work together to endow machines with creative capabilities.

A.I. systems have been programmed to write music, design choreography and yes, paint pictures -- museums have hosted exhibitions of computer-generated artwork since the 1960s. But opinions vary on whether such machine-generated works can really be considered art.

In another key passage in the film, Nathan and Caleb observe that Ava is exhibiting some of the more subtle aspects of human behavior -- like flirting, telling jokes and reading body language. In fact, Ava appears to be a walking polygraph test. She can tell if someone is lying by analyzing visual cues and facial expressions.

Similar technology is being developed at the Fraunhofer ISS Institute in Germany, where a computer system can read body language and facial cues to determine a person's emotional state. Analyzing images from a video camera, the technology uses facial recognition and proprietary analysis algorithms -- and has been scaled down to work as an app on Google Glass.

As for telling jokes, a surprising number of research teams are working on that as well. The ability to create and tell a joke is considered a kind of holy grail of artificial intelligence, as it requires a particular sophistication of thought and awareness. For instance, maybe a bot that can tell a "That's What She Said" joke. No, seriously.

Ava's mind is the main focus of Nathan's research, but she's got some good things going on at the hardware end, too. By way of clever art design and CGI trickery, the filmmakers have created an intriguing new robot for the sci-fi archives. Ava's transparent torso reveals her inner wiring and spine, and she moves with grace of a dancer. (The actress Vikander, not coincidentally, is a trained ballerina.)

A rather bananas scene toward the end of the movie features what may be the single weirdest robot dancing sequence ever put to film. So can robots dance in the real world? Sure, though ballet is still a long ways off. In recent years, bipedal robot design has made great strides, as it were, but it's still incredibly difficult to duplicate the balance and grace of the human machine. This Michael Jackson bot is pretty great, though.

Sifting though the spare parts in his mad scientist lab, Nathan shows Caleb the design for his A.I. CPU -- a shimmering blue piece of "wetware" that looks like some crystalline space-age evolution of the human brain. Nathan, we learn, is an off-the-charts genius who founded his company after writing his first program at age 13. "If you understand code, what he did was like Mozart," Caleb says.

In real-world A.I. research, do the bots really have a physical "brain" as such? The short answer is no -- Ava's brain is science fiction all the way. Artificial intelligence researchers are interested in replicating the function of the human brain, not so much the form. But neuroscientists and engineers have successfully created artificial neural networks that move information around based on the biological model. If you have several dozen hours to spare, check out the Blue Brain Project at EPFL in Switzerland. It's -- oh, what's the term? -- mind-blowing.

The fact that Ava's brain is science fiction, however, shouldn't stop you from seeing the movie. Here's a trailer for those who haven't seen it yet.

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