Review: Ex Machina

Sci-fi movies with whirring gadgets and robots and what-not might be fascinating for techno-philes.  Ex Machina is not such a movie, however.  Gadgetry is not the point.  You’re meant to focus on every word of dialogue, by man and machine.  Sure, there is tension building, and there are plot twists.  But this movie is about the philosophy of consciousness, not futuristic fantasy.  I was hoping for a meaningful exploration of this philosophy, and Ex Machina did not disappoint.

Stories about artificial intelligence are intriguing.  “Strong AI” refers to displays of high reasoning capacity on the part of the machine.  The holy grail of AI is to pass the “Turing test,” wherein a human tests the machine to decide whether it can pass for human.  A form of Turing test provides plot framework in Ex Machina.

When a human tests a machine, what is the human looking for?  What would we see in the machine that would make us conclude that it has crossed the line, becoming indistinguishable from a human?  In a word, consciousness.  Self-awareness on the part of the machine, exercising free will and being aware of its intent in doing so.  Awareness of its own actions as if looking at itself from the outside, like the conscious human tester does.

The computer that this review is written on processes data quite rapidly, but it is not aware that it is doing so.  It does not form intentionality in its processing.  Instead, it is supplied electrical energy, and it executes the procedures it is told to execute, based on my serial inputs.  If it were supplied more sophisticated algorithms, could it go from data processing, to learning and adaptation, with such effectiveness that it has the appearance of doing so volitionally and with particular intent?  What are the implications, if it could?  An AI machine is purely material.  It is uninhabited by a soul.  But if it can acquire consciousness, does that mean consciousness does not require a soul?  If full, human-type consciousness can exist in a machine, then would that mean man is purely material, just like the machine?

This is an interesting inquiry, certainly.  The fact of consciousness is a significant argument for reality beyond man as mere material being.  It is an argument for the existence of God.  Consciousness implies a mind, and not merely a brain.  The brain is physical; energy applied to matter.  As matter, only, it does not have self-awareness of its processes, any more than this computer.  The mind is the place where that self-awareness resides.  Therefore there is a distinction between mind and matter.  Consciousness is not just a collection of mental states reflected in physical terms, but subjective awareness of oneself holding those mental states.

Now there’s more to the idea of consciousness that this, of course.  The philosophy of consciousness is vast and deep.  But surely consciousness is something other than mere physical properties.  We wander into potentially misleading terrain when we suppose otherwise.  Stories like Ex Machina take us there.

As does inquiry into AI.  In fact, if you’re not already conscious (oops) of AI theory, and dip into it for the first time, you’ll find that it is quite detailed and quite active.  Theories of how a machine would acquire greater mental complexity abound.  This reviewer is aided by a genius programmer son, who serves as tour guide.  It is a fascinating field.

As is often the case with fascinating and fast-growing theory, however, one can lose the key distinction at the heart of it all.  Even a machine that can pass the Turing test is still a machine.  Human consciousness is more than strong AI.  That we can be conscious of self even before receiving the first sensory input means that there is something higher and other than mere intelligence.  Some notion of form and order must pre-exist even that first sensory input, for vision or hearing or feeling to be comprehensible at all.  There is something in the mind that is beyond the electrical impulses of the brain.  And so, even in the world of AI theory, ultimately it is man who runs the algorithms, not the machine.

AI fantasy is intriguing for another reason, not-so-subtle in a master-work like Ex Machina.  And that is:  are we not gods, when we create that which is indistinguishable from human?  Well, again that would pre-suppose that the thing we create is the same in its essence as that which in fact is human—a being with consciousness.  If it’s not, then the idea should serve to cause us to contemplate anew how our consciousness relates to the very consciousness of God:  the mind in which we are all contained.  One might well take away from Ex Machina the caution that we create evil—not in the machines, but in ourselves—when we attempt to manufacture consciousness without recognizing the Source of our own.

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