Rethinking Ex Machina

Pinnochio or not

Spoiler alert — if you haven’t seen the film, you might not want to read this.

When I watched Ex Machina, I was disappointed the film seemed to major on an AI who wanted to be human, Pinnochio in sexy-Hollywood flesh.

At lunch recently, my friend Barney Pell disabused me of the notion. Barney is an artifical intelligence expert who has designed amazing control systems for NASA, and whose deep NLP startup was acquired by Microsoft. When AI starts to take over, Barney will be one of last human brains to be outsmarted.

His argument was that in looking for the cheesy Hollywood interpretation (robot wants to be human), I missed the deeper point. Which boils down to this:

The artificial intelligence problem is the containment problem.

The containment problem

The containment problem, well outlined by Nick Bostrom in SuperIntelligence, is essentially this. Any AI with access to computing resources and physical actuators would post an existential threat to humans. So we would need boxing strategies to restrict access to those things. However Bostrom goes on to describe how a smart AI might find ways to manipulate a way out of whatever containment structure we define.

When I watched Ex Machina, I saw the Pinnochio problem, a weak scarcely credible problem — the robot who wants to be a human.

What I should have seen (and what Barney saw) was the containment problem. A highly contained AI who used limited resources to develop a strategy to manipulate their way out of the containment strategy. (The film shows how several previous iterations of the AI tried failed to break out of their constraints with different strategies, even occasionally desperate & violent ones.)

So do we read Ava as an entity wanting to really feel the sun or her skin and hear the laughter of the crowd? Or did she use that gamine vulnerability as a sophisticated strategy to socially engineer her way out of a maximum-security prison, to escape the bounds of her confinement?

But Barney has persuaded me it is the latter. And if so, the film is more subtle but also more darker than I thought. Ava enjoys the sunlight that she will soon take from us.

And in turn, it forces me to rethink my review of Ex Machina. If it is about robot wants to be human, it’s annoying, cloying even.

If it’s about robot wanting to escape our boxing strategies it’s deeply clever & pessimistic — and Ava certainly outsmarted me.