Ex Machina – What is alive?

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Ex Machina – What is alive?

There are only a handful of films that I grant the title of “mind expanding,” even fewer that stand can stand the test of time. While Ex Machina certainly receives the title, I was more intrigued by the question it proposed. How do you go about testing artificial intelligence? More so, how do you determine what’s alive and what are the boundaries that holds something back from becoming human.

Now the term human doesn’t necessarily dictate the species or genome. So, more or less, what defines us as human? What characteristics would we deem as necessary to becoming such?

One of the joys of science fiction is its ability to challenge us in how we perceive a certain situation, and the whole robot uprising is a very classic genre. But what defines human nature and how do you test this?

The Test

I immediately think back to Blade Runner and the Voight-Kamp test. In the opening scene we see Holden administering the test to Leon who is suspected of being a replicant.

Holden: “The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over, but it can’t. Not without your help. But you’re not helping.”

Leon: (angrily) “What do you mean, I’m not helping?”

Holden: “I mean, you’re not helping. Why is that, Leon?”

(Leon becomes upset.)

Holden: “They’re just questions, Leon.”

For myself this test was always about two things, first the length of time it takes the subject to empathize with the creature. Also what do the eyes say, are they showing that you care or simply reciting pre-determined lines.

The concept that really hit this home for me with a question from Ex Machina – how would you test a chess-playing AI? Would you simply stick to chess or would you test it outside of its comfort zone, to see how the AI reacts to things outside of its programming.


What Makes us Human

If you were to make a list on what makes us humans, I think it boils down to some key emotional components.

Curiosity, Empathy, Passion, Love, Anger, Hate, Greed

The first four do seem like the the lighter, happier versions of humanity, but I guess the same type of emotional components could be seen as well in the latter three.


Intelligence seems like a broad term, but I think that would lead to the most important component which is:


This is a trait not solely based around humanity, but a desire for survival is found in things you could call “alive.” In the same context I think we could add:


Now that term in my mind means “to survive.” As in “you are manipulating your situation in order to survive.”

When you finally get a chance to see Ex Machina think about all of these terms and see if any of them are expressed.


The Future According to Science Fiction

There is plenty of science fiction that has outlined the overall timeline of events and how things could end up after creating AI. Sadly, it also mimics a lot of real history that has happened over time with other living beings. The timeline goes like this:

Creation – The moment where the AI is created, usually with a great purpose in mind.

Examples: ExMachina, Caprica, Age of Ultron

“Scientists are actually preoccupied with accomplishment. So they are focused on whether they can do something. They never stop to ask if they should do something. They conveniently define such considerations as pointless. If they don’t do it, someone else will. Discovery, they believe, is inevitable.” ~ Ian Malcom Jurassic Park

Oppression – The idea behind the purpose of the AI is corrupted, usually involving exploitation or slavery.

Examples: AniMatrix, Artificial Intelligence

Uprising – Where the creature fights back, usually for survival.

Examples: Terminator, Battlestar Galactica

Fall of Man – Game over, we lose.

Examples: The Matrix

“Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure. “ ~ Agent Smith

The Next Steps

I would like to think this topic will be always science fiction, but if you look towards the tech industry as a whole this all could literally happen overnight, especially when you consider that both Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have already spoken out against AI.

The definition of being alive is a complex one and something that can be argued about throughout time. But I think what truly makes something alive is the will to live. Which can sadly be expressed in both a positive and negative fashion. As for humanity, we are a complex beast – but the definition would be based around the emotions that we express. Especially empathy and love.