Tuesday, Nov. 13 was a rainy day that desperately called for a movie session. Thankfully, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences happened to plan their “Without Limits: Interdisciplinary Conversations in the Liberal Arts” event perfectly. Hosted by English Professor Jed Mayer, the thought-provoking flick of the night was “Ex Machina.”
“Thought-provoking” is a minimal description of “Ex Machina.” This movie deals with our society’s inevitable future in artificial intelligence, questions our morality and what it means to be human or other, as well as the concept of gender roles. This Alex Garland film really has it all.
“Ex Machina,” simply put, is about an uber intelligent, billionaire creator of a search engine named Nathan, who invites a coder, Caleb, from his company to take part in a Turing test with a humanoid robot who Nathan created. The Turing test determines whether the robot, named Ava, is human-like enough, “conscious” enough and whether she interacts normally with humans. It is less of a story and more of a conversation that the audience can watch and be a part of, depending on who you watch it with. Interactions between Ava and Caleb are sometimes playful, but turn serious as the plot progresses. The dialogue between Caleb and Nathan alone is riveting and insightful.
Upon asking why he chose this film, Mayer said, “Garland’s film is one of the most rich and complex meditations on the ethical implications of artificial intelligence (AI) that I’ve seen, and I watch a lot of science fiction films. It also raises questions about gender and sexuality that are very much of the moment.”
The film was ideal for this year’s theme of “March of the Machines: Artificial Intelligence, Interactivity and Automation in the Digital Age.” Being the fourth year of this event, past themes included citizenship, food and the effect of screens in our lives.
“There are four of us on this year’s ‘Without Limits’ advisory board, Anne Roschelle, Stephen M. DiDomenico, Scott Le Vine and myself,” Mayer said. “Each year’s themes are chosen to reflect current and pressing concerns that can be meaningfully addressed from a Liberal Arts perspective.”
Concerns were definitely brought up in the discussion that followed the screening. A shared moment of awe transpired after the intense film was over, but with an audience of mixed ages and backgrounds, a rich dialogue flowed atop the several themes in the film. Mayer asked, “Is this a feminist film?” to which most replied “yes.” Other aspects visited through conversation focused more on power structures: is it okay to treat AI as sub human? What is the difference between humans and computers if AI come in to play? Is being able to label people, or AI, as “other” a privilege?
As Mayer shared, “This film pushes the notion of intersectionality, a major movement within feminism, to its limits, and I hope the film will encourage our community to think critically about how inequality and marginalization permeate all aspects of our thinking.”
Discussing a piece as multidimensional as “Ex Machina” is like peeling an onion with the layers and layers of concepts to be discovered. It was the complexities of this film that made the event a lot of fun and eye-opening.
One could say the night was a success in engaging audiences in such a way.
“Film is a rich medium for exploring complex ideas in an accessible and entertaining way. We want viewers to have fun while watching ‘Ex Machina.’ It is, among other things, a great thriller with a fantastic twist ending,” Mayer said.“It also raises very challenging questions and we hope students and faculty will be able to start a dialogue that will continue into the many wonderful ‘Without Limits’ events yet to come.”
The year-long series is not over yet. In the spring, DiDomenico will be hosting a screening of Spike Jonze’s “Her,” as a continuation of the theme.