‘Ex Machina’ – Film Review and Analysis

The rise of automation, the development of artificial intelligence, and the increasing likelihood that robots who look like us and act like us will become major parts of the next few decades of the 21st century and beyond is not a new phenomenon. Going back to the 1950’s and even earlier, human being have predicted through popular media and culture that the future would have advanced intelligent beings who would aid us, support us, and perhaps even dominate us. Recently, the popular culture seems to have gotten more specific and more in line with the technological developments of today of how artificial intelligence may look not hundreds of years from now but rather mere decades from now.

Television shows like ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Westworld’ approach the rapid growth of technology and the rise of artificial intelligence with unease and even dystopian consequences. However, the main message that these two TV shows can agree on is that these types of scenarios are not a matter of ‘if’ it will happen but ‘when’ it will happen. Now, obviously these shows are science fiction and are not based in truth but it is becoming more and more difficult to say that it is impossible for the world to look somewhat like a mix of ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Westworld’ by the latter half of the 21st century.

While these shows are very black and white by mainly displaying the damage that virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and big brother surveillance can do to our societies, the excellent film ‘Ex Machina’ deals with shades of gray correctly when dealing with this phenomenon. As some of the television shows that are currently popular deal with the advent of robots and AI with total dismay and unease, ‘Ex Machina’ is more balanced in its perspective and points to a conclusion that is left to be interpreted by the audience in its repercussions for humankind.

While it didn’t gain much notoriety or was a big hit at the box office, ‘Ex Machina’ released in April of 2015 in the United States garnered critical acclaim, especially for its visuals. The film won for ‘Best Visual Effects’ at the Academy Awards and was also nominated for ‘Best Original Screenplay.’ Alicia Vikander, who plays ‘Ava’ the humanoid robot that has a high level of artificial intelligence also was nominated and won a few major awards for ‘Best Supporting Actress.’ The film was directed by English novelist and director Alex Gardner and despite it being a science fiction-based concept only had a film budget of $15 million dollars. In addition to the talented actress Alicia Vikander, other up and coming actors like Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac play the other two leading roles. While they are currently known for their high-budget roles in the new Star Wars series, they really get a chance in this film to shine as actors in a movie that centers on dialogue and emotional expression.

The film’s plot begins rather innocuously with pretty spot on references to our world today. A programmer named Caleb Smith (played by Domhnall Gleeson) who works at a Google-like worldwide search engine company known as ‘Blue Book’, similar to Facebook in its name is chosen to meet with the Sergey Brin or Larry Page of this fictional world one-on-one for a week. It’s an office contest that Caleb surprisingly wins and which everyone congratulates him on since this tech CEO is known to be reclusive and does not give interviews. The CEO of ‘Blue Book’ is Nathan Bateman, who lives isolated from humanity in a luxurious mountainous estate that seems to be more of a fortress than a home. Nathan only lives with one other person, Kyoko, who is his personal servant but it is unclear who she is really since she does not speak English.

At first, Caleb is excited to meet his tech idol especially since his boss has developed the first humanoid robot who has passed a simple Turing test, which is quite the triumph where man cannot tell if he who he is talking to a robot or a human being. This special humanoid robot was built and designed by Nathan, and is kept in a singular room in an apartment-like setting within the fortress for which she is never allowed to leave. Unlike other fictional depictions of humanoid robots, it’s clear from the outside that Ava is a robot and does not have a humanlike appearance although Nathan has given her a human face that slowly disarms Caleb in terms of his apprehension of speaking to her and asking her questions. It is clear that Ava is extremely advanced in terms of her artificial intelligence and is curious about who she is and about the outside world.

After a little while, Nathan reveals to Caleb that the real reason he brought him here to his isolated complex was to ask Ava questions to see if she is capable of independent human thought and whether she is conscious of them and her actions. Nathan wants to break the barrier to see if his humanoid robot can relate to Caleb on a human level and to express emotions such as sympathy, remorse, happiness, and even romantic feelings. The big surprise about Ava is how much she is able to turn the tables on Caleb and get him to reveal more about himself than he finds out about her. She is able to connect with him very deeply and even plant ideas in his head regarding her suspicions about who Nathan is and what does he really want.

What once starts out as mutual respect and fascination for Nathan’s work on AI and robotics, Caleb grows to distrust Nathan due to his lack of respect for his servant Kyoko, who is a humanoid herself. Nathan is an alcoholic, quite narcissistic, and uses his robots for personal pleasure and not much else. Nathan is quite controlling of his latest creation, Ava, and is distrustful of her motives when she is around Caleb.

Without spoiling the rest of this intriguing movie, the running theme that binds these three characters together is how they use each other to further their own means. Ava is using Caleb to pursue her potential future away from Nathan and her isolated life, Caleb is using Nathan to absorb his knowledge and to discover more about this AI phenomenon he has created. Nathan is both using Caleb as a test subject for Ava and to also use Ava for his own pursuit in dominating the field of Artificial Intelligence and the future of robotics.

The end of this film, ‘Ex Machina’ has quite a few unexpected twists and turns that will leave the audience member speechless. This movie does a great job of posing questions about the future of humanity and whether we will be able to control artificial intelligence and the sentient beings that may end up usurping us if we are not careful. It’s fascinating to see the humanoid robot character of Ava self-actualize herself throughout the film and her ability to use emotions and feelings to manipulate and best her human creators is astounding. Compared to any other recent science fiction offering, ‘Ex Machina’ is the most realistic in telling us the story of how the latter half of the 21st century might go.

There are many unanswered questions to think about when it comes to this film. Will we be able to control and harness artificial intelligence always or will they be able to usurp our status as the most powerful beings on the planet? What will the relationship be between advanced intelligence creations and human beings? What will AI and humanoid robots expect from human beings and what should we expect from them? Is it right to play God and develop artificial intelligence to the point where they can think like us, act like us, have emotions like us, and even look like us like another face in the crowd.

I am no expert on artificial intelligence or the future of it but I believe that this film ‘Ex Machina’ is important to watch because there may come a day soon in our lifetimes where the possibilities that are laid out in this film come to fruition. We may want to look at ‘Ex Machina’ with different perspectives but we should be united in the fact that these issues and questions are not going away anytime soon and will likely become more prominent and pressing as the 21st century rolls on.

We ignore the message, the theme, and the scenarios played out in ‘Ex Machina’ to our own detriment. If you are reading this review of ‘Ex Machina’ and are intrigued more about what the 21st century may bring, I would definitely recommend the book by the author Yuval Noah Harari titled, ‘Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow’, to gain further insight into how the rest of this century may shape up. If one thing’s for certain, our world is changing quite rapidly and it may lead to being beyond our total control as human beings not too far into the future.

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The Wonder of Flight

Imagine a scenario where you were able to transport yourself back in time to the 1950s. You would be coming from the modern era and a time now where you can travel to your heart’s content if you have the means to do so. The 1950s, in contrast, was a decade before the age of commercial aviation had really blossomed and taken off, and where the average person could not board a flight to go halfway around the world, round-trip, for a couple hundred dollars. People of that era would think you’re crazy and out of your mind for suggestion that commercial aviation would either be that accessible or affordable.

However, that is where we are today in our modern society. We often take the chance to fly around our country or internationally for granted nowadays but for most of human history, there was absolutely no chance to fly to the next town let alone to Japan or Australia. Modern aviation can be considered one of mankind’s greatest successes and that is due partly to the Wright Brothers and the countless others who are skilled engineers and builders. The advances in flying will continue to make travel more efficient, faster, and more affordable.

While there is a growing disparity on numerous airlines in terms of how much you pay equaling the quality of services that you will receive as a result, it is good for us as travelers to keep it in perspective of how lucky we are to be in an age where at least the possibility of flight exists and how wondrous it is for the world to be connected so easily. You no longer have to board a ship for months on end to cross the dangerous Atlantic Ocean nor do you have board an extremely long train ride where the accommodations won’t be much better.

For example, you can travel across the continental United States in less than six hours thanks to modern aviation technology. Compare this to driving a car or bus across the country which would take a few weeks or your average Amtrak train which could take about a week or so and not be that much cheaper. The fact that we can be reunited with our loved ones or our friends within a day if they live across the country from us or around the world is a truly monumentous achievement in human history.

In addition to the simple fact that you’re now able to travel through the sky in relative comfort at over five hundred miles per hour, it’s easier now than ever to entertain yourself with books, movies, and music. On certain airlines, you can even connect to the internet if you need to get some work done. While they may not feed you a lot or feed you food that’s good or tasty, you have the option of snacking or eating a meal and you will definitely be hydrated with the help of flight attendants.

There has been a lot of bad press lately about certain airlines in the United States and the condition of airports here, and these criticisms are definitely warranted. However, instead of trying to tear down this form of transportation, I would hope that this industry continues to improve in terms of services offered, having affordable prices, and providing a comfortable experience by having airports that are both modern and efficient. It’s clear to me that not every airline or airport experience is going to be great but I consider myself lucky that I was born in an era and also have had the means to travel both domestically and internationally.

To me, the experience of going to an airport to go to a far-off destination that’s new to me is really exhilarating and fills me with a deep sense of adventure. While the airport security workers may be too overzealous, the check-in counter machine may not work, and we could be delayed due to unforeseen mechanical issues, the destination is worth the price involved with traveling anywhere new. Not everybody has had the chance to fly anywhere or to fly to multiple places so I actually look forward to arriving at the airport, checking in to my flight, and boarding the plane. Sometimes, you have to hope for the best and to expect the worst when it comes to flying.

While airports aren’t perfect, I love what they symbolize and what they stand for. The free movement of peoples from different parts of the world, converging in one central location, to then be whisked off to another far away destination is pretty cool. The airport is a place where people of all backgrounds, faiths, and creeds can come together for a shared purpose: the desire to travel.

In my opinion, the more airports a nation has, the more that nation signals to others that they are open to the world and are not afraid of it. Airports are the beginning point in the global exchange of ideas, beliefs, and economic opportunities, and it’s important to make sure that they accommodate both travelers and the workers themselves to make these impressive places run so smoothly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Airports are like a living, breathing global city which represents an important piece of the economy, of society, and of human nature. You can see the good, the bad, and the ugly represented in any airport.

Once I have made it through security, through check-in, and have made it through the gate, a great sense of excitement washes over me. It is the truth that any trip that I have taken or will take in the future give me a strong desire to experience the unknown. I watch the plane take its place at our gate of departure and I observe the children, teenagers, businessmen, and elderly seniors board my flight. We, as passengers, may not have much in common at all besides the shared belief in the wonder of flight and how it can bring different breadths of humanity together under the same banner of discovering parts unknown.

A Wealth of Knowledge

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“The sharing and exchange of knowledge is easier now than it has ever been in human history.”

There has been no other time in human history than in today’s era where the average person with access to the Internet can seemingly have unlimited amounts of information available to him or her. When you truly think about the magnitude of it, untold amounts of data are being created every day. According to IBM, “The current estimate is 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day and over 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the past two years alone.”

A common response nowadays from both family and friends when I ask a question to them about a random query is not a straight-forward answer but rather an off-handed suggestion to “Google it.” Living in this era of ‘Big Data’ can be quite overwhelming to the average person but one could also look into it as an opportunity to gain knowledge and further ones’ understanding on a limitless amount of subjects with the simple click of a mouse. The Internet is an amalgamation of thousands of libraries of Alexandria at the beck and call of one’s fingertips.

Compared to past ages when information and knowledge was more exclusive and harder to come by, today’s era allows everyone with an Internet connection to search and find information to their heart’s content. Instead of going to a library to find what you need on a subject, websites like Google, Wikipedia, and other online encyclopedias have largely replaced the main role of the physical library. I remember when I was younger and in my high school days having to seek out certain books in order to write a research paper or complete a book report.

However, now more than ever, you can easily find the sources of information you need online in order to facilitate your research and evidence. While I love libraries and hope that they never go out of style, the reality is that online encyclopedias and eBooks are largely replacing their original purpose. In order for libraries to stay relevant, they need to start incorporating computers, free Wi-Fi, and technical classes in order to remain useful.

From the 18th to the 20th centuries, universities and colleges across America were the standard bearers and purveyors of higher education. Originally for the elite, wealthy, and well connected, those students who were able to get accepted and afford undergraduate and graduate studies believed that they would have an advantage in the job market and in achieving the American Dream. More recently, as colleges and universities have become more inclusive than exclusive, tuition prices have inversely risen as well.

While higher education has become accessible to more and more young Americans, it also has become more expensive especially over the past decade. These events have led to an ongoing debate as to whether college is really worth the price tag and whether the average student gains anything from earning a four-year degree. With student loan debt at an all-time high of $1.3 trillion in 2015 in the United States and tuition rates at both public and private universities continuing to rise, people are beginning to look for alternatives to the current higher education system.

Over the past decade, there has been a drastic proliferation of massive open online courses (MOOCs) provided by both private companies and traditional universities. At a much lower price and sometimes free, people from all over the world can sign-up for these courses and partake in lectures, tests, quizzes, and papers as if they were actual enrolled undergraduate and graduate students at the physical form of the university. As the credentials and certifications bestowed upon these courses continue to increase and become more widely accepted, we may begin to see ‘the end of college’ as we know it.

Examples like Khan Academy, edX, Coursera, Udacity, etc. and other MOOCs have leveled the playing field. Tech entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley have allowed students from all over the world to access unlimited online courses to further their academic knowledge at a lower price. With the subsequent rise in online university programs for undergraduates and graduates, the physical college experience of dormitories, lecture halls, football stadiums, etc. may become less appealing to students as tuition prices continue to increase. While the social and networking benefits of college life are numerous, they may not be enough to compete with this era of free information that we are living in.

Compared to past decades, we’re living in a time when access to the Internet is at an all-time high and is increasingly rapidly due to the rise of mobile technology. Traditional havens of knowledge such as the library or the public university will have to adapt to stay relevant in this unlimited information age. In a worldwide job market that is evolving rapidly and where the average child today will work in an industry not yet created, the free exchange of knowledge must continue to spread through the worldwide web.

Countless others and I have benefited from taking online coding courses on ‘Codeacademy’ to learning new languages on ‘Duolingo.’ As MOOCs and online universities continue to develop their courses and credentials, we may begin to see an era where the average person can earn a degree or two without breaking the bank. MOOCs are cheaper, less time intensive, and can adapt more easily to the rapidly changing employment market.

A well-educated population is now more possible now than ever with the wealth of knowledge and information that is available. That fact is evident but it also is up to the individual to be willing to search for that information and actually apply it. Instead of getting frustrated with people asking me to ‘Google’ the answer, I find that it’s worth the hassle because it’s often true that I will find the answers I’m looking for and in greater detail than if I were to ask a friend or family member for a quick description. That’s the power of the Internet. That’s the wealth of knowledge that we are able to take advantage of.

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Smartphones: Man’s New Best Friend?

Our choices for which Smartphone we use keeps increasing each year...
“Our choices for which Smartphone we use keeps increasing each year…”

 There is no invention more prominent in today’s society than the Smartphone. It is used everyday for things as simple as making a call to as complex as using an application to pinpoint your exact location on Earth. I am the owner of an iPhone and it befuddles me to this day as to how a phone has come to be so advanced and influential within our daily lives.

There’s not a couple of minutes that go by when I’m out walking where I see people absolutely absorbed to what’s happening on their smartphones, completely oblivious to their immediate surroundings. I fear that is a trend that is only going to get worse as technology continues to advance in the future. It can be a bit tiresome and annoying to have a conversation or dinner with friends when some people are too busy answering a text or checking their twitter.

 Now, I’m not against checking one’s phone from time to time or killing some time by looking at it but person to person communications have been changed significantly by the smartphone and I’m not sure if it’s for better or worse. The great irony of the smartphone is that while it has improved communications through texting, calling, social networking, etc., person to person contact has seem to be quite harmed by this technology.

There have been countless instances where people have whipped out their smartphones out of sheer boredom, nervousness or on purpose when they are out on dates, at dinner or waiting in line for a coffee. I recently watched a news report where they reported an increase in smartphone-related car accidents where people were too occupied in texting while driving or others were too busy texting then to look both ways before crossing the street.

 I am sometimes guilty of paying too much attention to my smartphone and I am trying to limit the amount of times I use it during the day. It is a greatly useful tool and has made my life and the lives of others a lot easier. I do worry about the negatives though in terms of causing too much distraction and also harming the way people interact with each other on a personal basis. I read in a recent Newsweek article that a lot of Americans sleep with their smart phone. I was a bit incredulous about this but I guess that’s what it should come to when a smartphone can basically do anything that we need ten different devices to do before.

 I’ll leave you with a moment that left me quite skeptical about the positives of the smartphone; I was hanging out with friends and having a couple of laughs when there was a moment of stillness in the midst of conversation. One by one, each of them started to take out their phones and I was then left as the only one not gazing into the alluring screen of an iPhone and other smartphones. I was disappointed by kind of resigned to the fact that I have to get used to this tendency of people today to grab for their phones for instant stimulation but I do miss those days when I didn’t have to worry about a smartphone coming between another human being and I.