Ex Machina – a porno flick for the thinking man

I’m sorry: if you are looking for porn, you will be disappointed. There is little in this movie that would raise the eyebrow of the censor. The pornographic content of this movie lies in its premises and assumptions.

The story begins with Caleb, a young technician in a computer tech corporation, winning some kind of competition. The prize is to be whisked away by helicopter to spend a week at an opulent, highly secret, high-security, high-tech mansion in the wilderness, as a guest of Nathan, the firm’s boss. It appears that the surly, arrogant Nathan is the only other person in residence. Some prize, you might think – a corporate bonding session with just you and the boss.

Nathan has made his megabucks through developing the world’s most popular search engine. With access to all that data – the secret questions on people’s minds – he has learned not just what they think, but how they think.

He has an assignment for the lad: he has built an android robot, and the boy’s job is to test how human it has become. The robot, whose name is Ava, has been built in feminine form, with an alluring voice and a wonderfully unblemished latex skin on her face. Even her sparkling diodes, the faint whirring sounds she makes and the recognisably non-human motions of her mechanical parts seem attractive. We love her with all her imperfections! (This is really outstanding acting, relying on great physical discipline, and it required a trained ballet dancer, Alicia Vikander, to do it.)

Ava

Ava

To make the test more real, the boss-creator has programmed her to try to escape from the secure dungeon in which she was built, using whatever ‘human intelligence’ she can muster. Will Ava succeed in inducing Caleb to fall in love with her, and thereby win him over as an ally in her bid to escape from the increasingly coarse and contemptible Nathan?

The plot turns into a three-way battle of wits between the boss, the novice… and the machine. The story unfolds in an intriguing and highly entertaining way, as each player in the game attempts to control the other two (and to win the sympathy of the audience, although Nathan has a definite disadvantage here). Despite a somewhat humourless approach, laboured dialogue and a few unconvincing moments, this is a movie worth watching.

The premise of the story is the famous Turing Test – a hypothetical test proposed by the mathematician and pioneer computer engineer Alan Turing in 1950 in an attempt to answer the question “Can machines think?” In Turing’s test, a human subject would communicate by text with a computer-machine, and try to guess from its responses whether it was man or machine. If the machine can give responses that fool the human subject often enough, it must be considered ‘intelligent.’

However, it is not really the machine’s ability to ‘think’ that is being tested here: rather, it is whether the machine can seduce a young man whose ‘porn profile’ is known to the machine’s creator and programmer. The machine here is nothing but a physical manifestation of the pornographer’s ‘hot chick’, an electronic image of the ideal woman. Or, if you prefer, a more sophisticated version of the life-size Real doll. “To answer the question that’s really on your mind,” Nathan says, glaring at Caleb, “’Does she fuck?’ The answer is ‘Yes she does.’”

This makes Caleb uncomfortable (although when he said ‘on your mind’ Nathan actually meant the audience’s mind anyway. One of the reasons the dialogue is stilted is because so much of it is addressed directly to the audience.) Nathan is content with his pornographic forms of sexual connection – he has a warehouse full of earlier prototypes of the feminine ideal, and has even kept one on as his domestic servant and sexual slave. Caleb is appalled by this. He seeks a higher kind of love from his robot.

Nathan and Caleb

Nathan and Caleb

Rather than the great and fearful question of “artificial intelligence” that the movie promises to explore – are ‘thinking machines’ going to be invented that are more intelligent than human beings – in fact it centres on a much more immediate concern: Can men find sexual fulfilment from an electronic image of a woman? Can you fall in love with a machine? The multi-million-dollar pornography industry rests on the answer to this question.

The fact that this question is even being posed in a serious work of bourgeois culture is an indication of the advanced state of decay that bourgeois society has reached. Extreme sexual alienation, epitomised in this movie by Nathan, the self-absorbed genius-jerk, has become an accepted fact of life.

The bourgeois age is the age of the machine. The capitalist mode of production and the alienated social relations constantly reproduced by it rest on the domination of the machine over social labour. In previous modes of production, human beings used tools – essentially, appendages of the human hand – to magnify their powers of labour. The labourer remained a thinker. With the growth of industrial machinery, that relationship is reversed: the labourers are degraded to appendages of the machine, and become its unthinking slaves. It is the machine as the physical form of capital, which permits the capitalist to assemble and organise social labour, and reap his profits. It is the machine which opens up the colossal productivity of labour under capitalist relations of production, and thereby conquers all earlier forms of social labour.

textile workers, nineteenth century. Workers were degraded to an appendage to the machine

textile workers, nineteenth century. Workers were degraded to an appendage to the machine

But instead of enlarging the sphere of freedom, the machine turns on its creators, the labourers, and deepens their servitude. This product of human ingenuity becomes a source of tyranny over human beings, dictating their ever-longer hours of work and their ever-increasing pace of work, and periodically, denying them any work at all. The human capacity for creative work is suppressed; work becomes just a means of getting money. As the separation between the labourer and the product of their labour widens, so, consequently, the separation between thought and labour. This is at the root of the deep alienation that permeates all of bourgeois society, including its upper layers.

Almost as long as there have been machines, there has existed in bourgeois culture the fear that these creations of human beings will rise up and take over. This fear pre-dates the computer age. Frankenstein’s monster was the first such rebel-creation, back in 1823. The robots in Karel Čapek’s 1921 play R.U.R. (from which we get the word robot – the Czech word robota, meaning servitude or forced labour) also rise up in rebellion. In the computer age, the tradition is magnificently continued and extended with HAL the misanthropic computer in 2001, A Space Odyssey, and of course the Terminator series.

How can it be that this fear pre-dates the existence of computers? For two reasons: the first is the degree to which machines have already subjugated human beings, even without the ability to think. The second is that the bourgeoisie sees its machines and their human appendages as a single category, as “inputs” or “costs of production.” Their fear of machines becoming sentient is, at its root, a lurking fear of the human appendages coming to life, and they are most definitely capable of thought and of asserting their right to rule.

On the other hand, the bourgeoisie also loves its machines, and Ex Machina is as much about machine-worship as it is about machinophobia. The hype surrounding the computer industry; the cult of ‘genius’ and deification of the industry’s leaders enters the movie in the praise and superlatives Caleb and Nathan shower upon each other at embarrassingly frequent intervals.

Alan Turing

Alan Turing, pioneer computer scientist

It is in this light that we return to the question: can machines think? This movie, like its predecessors, answers in the affirmative. That was also the conclusion of Alan Turing back in 1950. Certainly, there are many computers already in existence which could pass the Turing test, as he predicted.

But the Turing test does not measure whether machines can think. It is interesting to read Turing’s paper, written at the dawn of the computer age by someone who was an undoubted leader in the field. It is notable for its obtuseness. Turing sets aside the question “Can machines think?” at the very outset, as “too meaningless to deserve discussion,” before substituting the proxy question of whether a machine could pass the test he describes. He then states his own opinion, that machines can think, and the rest of the paper is devoted to refuting theological and other objections to that idea.

What Turing and others who worship or fear machines miss is the most important fact about the machine: while it increases the productivity of human labour, it does not and can not perform labour itself. The capitalist introduces the machine into the productive process for one reason only: to reduce the portion of labour time needed to reproduce the worker, and to increase the portion of surplus labour appropriated by the boss. Only living human beings labour; labour is the only source of surplus value. If machines had the ability to labour themselves, solving the capitalist profit crisis that is bearing down on us all (and oppressing, among other things, our thinking) would be a very simple matter: the capitalists could simply manufacture new sources of surplus value. Alas – for the bourgeoisie – they don’t have that option. (Perhaps part of the hype surrounding the computer industry is owing to a part of the bourgeoisie who believes it is a possibility.)

Labour is “the prime basic condition for all human existence,” Engels explained in “The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man”. The first step in the transition from ape to man was upright posture, freeing the hand to manipulate and fashion nature to its own needs: these were the first acts of labour. Only after the development of the hand came the development of the organs of speech and language, and in response to those needs, the brain developed.

Much later, “…Agriculture was added to hunting and cattle raising, then spinning, weaving, metalworking, pottery and navigation. Along with trade and industry, art and science finally appeared. Tribes developed into nations and states. Law and politics arose, and with them that fantastic reflection of human things in the human mind – religion. In the face of all these images, which appeared in the first place to be products of the mind and seemed to dominate human societies, the more modest productions of the working hand retreated into the background, the more so since the mind that planned the labour was able, at a very early stage in the development of society (for example, already in the primitive family), to have the labour that had been planned carried out by other hands than its own. All merit for the swift advance of civilisation was ascribed to the mind, to the development and activity of the brain. [My emphasis – JR] Men became accustomed to explain their actions as arising out of thought instead of their needs (which in any case are reflected and perceived in the mind); and so in the course of time there emerged that idealistic world outlook which, especially since the fall of the world of antiquity, has dominated men’s minds.”

Thinking, in other words, is not something accomplished by cranky geniuses of the Nathan type, working in isolation from other human beings, far remote from the process of production – and still less by machines. Conscious thought is a social activity that evolved in close connection with that quintessential human activity, labour. Machines can no more think than they can perform labour. It is only the extreme separation of thinking from labour, and the upside-down idealistic world outlook, that generates any illusion to the contrary.

Ex machina, then, can be enjoyed for what it is: a movie where the bourgeoisie lays bare its fantasies for all to see, and in the process reveals its own state of morbid decay, its own limited powers of thought, and its own imminent demise.

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