Ava is not the only character in Ex Machina whose actions are questionable, but so too are those of us who have watched the film.
In Ex Machina, a rich genius, Nathan, creates an AI, and invites a young programmer, Caleb, to his isolated estate to test whether the AI convincingly passes as human. With a slightly ambiguous ending, the audience is left to figure out for themselves whether Ava, the AI in question, passed the test or not. But before you can decide, first you must ask yourself, what test did she take? Furthermore, is Ava the only one being tested?
Ex Machina spoilers below.
In the beginning of the film, Nathan states that Caleb will participate in a Turing test, as the human component (thus, Ava is the computer component). How the Turing test works: a human is placed in a room, alone, and he/she communicates solely through text with another human and a computer. The catch is that the first human is not told who is the computer and who is the human, and he/she must figure out, through textual communication, which is the computer and which is the person. If it isn’t obvious, then the computer passes as true AI.
Except, in Ex Machina, the machine isn’t hidden from Caleb. As Nathan puts it, the test is harder to pass if the human component, Caleb, can see the machine, and knows he’s talking to a machine. Right from the start, this test is flawed. Of course, we find out later that Nathan never intended to use the Turing test to test Ava, but still, how does Ava measure up to it?
The truth is, it’s nearly impossible to know if Ava passes a Turing test because the test isn’t a true Turing test. The result is skewed from the outset. Maybe Nathan is right, and Caleb’s awareness of talking to a machine makes it harder, but it could also make it easier. Caleb is a programmer, and right from the start he was in awe of Nathan’s AI creation. It’s entirely possible that Caleb is just impressed by the technology and how well programmed Ava is, rather than the full extent of those capabilities. After all, how deep do his questions go? How often does he actually try to stump her, or engage her in conversations of depth?
Nevertheless, the general, initial reaction is to think Ava does not pass the test because she leaves Caleb to die. Caleb, who likes Ava and helps her escape, is abandoned in the locked building with barely a backwards glance. How can she do that? Humans are not that dispassionate, so that must mean Ava doesn’t pass the test.
That judgement is too quick, though. There are dispassionate people in the world, and perhaps she’s even sociopathic. So is Ava a product of nature or nurture? Maybe she was ‘born’ or ‘created’ emotionless, or maybe she was raised to be as such. The only person she’s ever known is Nathan, who has treated her poorly at best. She doesn’t know kindness. If she has never seen compassion, never felt it herself, how could she feel it for others?
While we don’t know the extent to which Nathan has abused Ava, at the very least we know she’s been locked away for her entire one unit of life, forbidden to ‘see the color outside her black and white room.’ She’s controlled, and given little to no freedom. When she finds out from Caleb that he’s testing her, she asks what will happen if she doesn’t pass. She assumes she’ll be switched off, and is visibly angered at the idea that her life is decided by someone else. She makes the point to Caleb, “Why is it up to anyone? Do you have people who test you and might switch you off?”
Despite being kind to her, Caleb is still part of the process to test Ava and determine whether she gets to ‘live’ or ‘die,’ and it doesn’t sit well with her. Her mistrust of people increases, so her decision to leave Caleb locked up is not necessarily a cold-hearted one. It could be a survival instinct. She’s known Caleb for barely a week, and has had few conversations with him. He seems kind, he’s helping her escape, but what happens after that? For all she knows, Caleb has the same intentions with her as Nathan does. For all she knows, Caleb is only freeing her so he can be with her, and that’s not what she wants.
Some still might say that leaving Caleb to die is too cruel to say she passed the test, but consider this: all Ava ever needed to do was pass as human, not be human. By this point of the film, Ava has gotten what she wanted. She’s free. She sufficiently convinced Caleb of her ‘human status’ so he’d help her escape, and once done, all pretense to appear human is not necessary anymore.
Which brings us to the second test. Nathan’s test. It’s revealed late in the film that Nathan never intended the real test to be the Turing test, but instead, one of his own design: “Ava was a mouse in a mousetrap. And I gave her one way out. To escape, she would have to use imagination, sexuality, self-awareness, empathy, manipulation, and she did. If that isn’t AI, what the fuck is?” As Nathan indicates, Ava does pass this test, but why this test? Why would a test of manipulation and duplicity be better than a Turing test, or any other test for that matter? And what does this say about Nathan, and humans in general?
For Ava to pass the test, to appear human, she must endear someone to her for her own gain. In this case, her target is Caleb. She must get to know him, and figure out the best way to charm him so he’ll be more inclined to help her. It’s possible she ends up caring for Caleb in some way, but ultimately she’s operating on self-interest and self-preservation.
Is this how Nathan perceives people? Is that why he uses a test of this nature to gauge Ava’s ability to mimic a human? Does he feel that human interaction is so forced we only ever pretend to care about people, hoping they’ll do something for us in the future? His reclusive lifestyle and higher-than-mighty attitude would indicate so.
However, Nathan is also acting on self-interest. When Caleb asks Nathan why he created Ava, Nathan responds that it was an inevitability. Making Ava wasn’t a decision; it was an evolution. It’s an interesting thought, if you choose to believe him. However, we have seen Nathan abuse these AIs, and use at least one of them as a sex slave. He’s creating these robots, as he says, because he can, but it’s also for his own interests.
Nathan has only ever created female AIs, and it isn’t one or two. There’s seven that we know of. Why only women? Maybe he’s been romantically spurned too many times, and now he only sees women as manipulative vixens who don’t deserve to be treated as anything more than an object. He doesn’t see women as people; they’re just easily replicated beings worth little more than as a sex object. He wants his machines to be as human as possible, but he treats them like toys, and denies them a basic human right: freedom.
Nathan’s misogyny is then contrasted against Caleb, who we’re meant to believe* sees Ava as more than a machine. He sees her as human, someone in peril who needs help. But, as stated above, Ava does not trust so easily, and she, in turn, treats Caleb quite similarly to how Nathan has treated his AIs, in using Caleb for her escape plan. Ava and Nathan are not so different from each other, so would you classify one as a villain and not the other?
Then there’s Caleb. Isn’t Caleb also operating on self-interest? Would he have helped Ava escape if he wasn’t attracted to her? Is he helping her because it’s the right thing to do, or because he wants her to be with him? Did he ever intend on helping Kyoko escape too? Moreover, would he have let Ava venture into the world and live on her own after they escaped? Caleb sees Ava as someone who needs saving, but could he ever see her as someone capable of saving herself? He probably couldn’t, considering how shocked he is that Ava has been manipulating him the entire time.
Ex Machina urges you to think about how we treat women, and expertly demonstrates how women are not so different from men. It shows an oppressed woman, albeit a robotic one, free herself from her male incarcerators, and dares you to call her a villain. Her deceit leaves you wondering whether she passed the test, but this in turn makes you wonder whether you pass the test. How sincere are you when you interact with others? Are you actually interested in hearing what other people have to say, do you feign interest, or do you only talk about yourself? Is pretending to care a bad thing, or is it only bad if you’re doing it out of self-interest?
Ex Machina was never about whether Ava would pass the test. To be sure, Ava’s character is an interesting topic of discussion, but it’s a gateway discussion. The film goes much further than this. It makes you question Nathan and Caleb’s motivations, and, more interestingly, it makes you question your own.
What do you think is the biggest question ‘Ex Machina’ poses?
*For more thoughts on Caleb’s role, see Film Crit Hulk.