The Turing test detects if a machine can truly think like a human. The Bechdel Test detects gender bias in fiction. If you were to mash the two together to create a particularly messy Venn diagram, the overlap shall henceforth be known as the Ex Machina Zone.
In writer/director Alex Garland’s thought-provoking new film—out Friday—we meet Ava (Alicia Vikander), an artificially-intelligent robot. Ava’s creator, genius tech billionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac), has asked his employee Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to determine whether Ava’s thinking is indistinguishable from a human’s. Until she meets Caleb, Ava has only ever met her maker and one other woman. (Hence the failing of the Bechdel Test, which stipulates that a movie must feature two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.) Her existence, and her ability to learn how to interact, is a fascinating study of what makes us human.
It’s also a compelling, if problematic, look at the interactions between men and women—or at least that’s what I thought.
While interviewing Garland for a magazine piece, I asked him about the roles of men and women in his film; his response was that Ava is “not a woman, she is literally genderless.” Despite using female pronouns, he said, “the things that would define gender in a man and a woman, she lacks them, except in external terms. … I’m not even sure consciousness itself has a gender.”
In a way, Garland is right; pure intelligence wouldn’t have a gender any more than it would have a race. But to say that and then place that consciousness into a body that it will immediately recognize its likeness as female negates that point. If Ava has truly been educated about the human race, then she knows her face and form appeal to certain segments of the population. But even thornier is the fact that Ava falls squarely into so many of the tropes of women in film. She’s a femme fatale, a seductress posing as a damsel in distress, using her wiles to get Caleb to save her from Nathan and his Dr.-Frankenstein-with-tech-money quest to build a perfect woman. (Women: So much better when you can construct them out of bespoke parts and switch them off if they’re not working properly, amirite?)
Chappie Didn’t Have to Put Up With This Crap
According to Garland, these tropes are intentionally front-and-center. He believes his movie is a commentary on the “constructs we’ve made around girls in their early 20s and the way we condition them culturally” and why Caleb would feel the need to save her from her maker. “You’re supposed to think it’s creepy,” he says. “You’re not supposed to warm to [Nathan] over that stuff, you’re supposed to feel unnerved, and therefore that she needs to be rescued.”
Yet, in the pursuit of that commentary, the movie ends up re-enacting those same patterns. Ava does prove to be the smartest creature on the screen, but the message we’re left with at the end of Ex Machina is still that the best way for a miraculously intelligent creature to get what she wants is to flirt manipulatively. (And why wouldn’t she? All of her information about human interaction comes from her creepy creator and the Internet.) Why doesn’t Chappie have to put up with this bullshit?
Ava’s predicament really isn’t that different from many female AIs who have come before her, from Metropolis’ Maria to Her’s Samantha to Blade Runner’s Pris. She is an android in female form, and thus she simply reflects how Hollywood has been depicting women—robotic or otherwise—for decades. In Blade Runner, the male replicants Roy Batty and Leon are struggling to change their short lifespans, while “basic pleasure model” Pris helps the cause by draping herself on J.F. Sebastian. In Prometheus, David is intellectually curious, but never sexualized. (Yet when Idris Elba’s Janek accuses Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers of being a robot, she responds with “My room. Ten minutes.” Because sex is the easiest way to prove you’re a real woman.) Sentient male androids want to conquer or explore or seek intellectual enlightenment; female droids may have the same goals, but they always do it with a little bit of sex appeal, or at least in a sexy package. (Still have doubts? Ex Machina’s marketing campaign at South by Southwest involved Ava showing up on Tinder.)
This tendency to give female AIs the most basic and stereotypical feminine characteristics is, according to Kathleen Richardson, a senior research fellow in the ethics of robotics at De Montfort University in the UK, probably a reflection of “what some men think about women—that they’re not fully human beings.” To put a finer point on it, she told Live Science recently, “what’s necessary about them can be replicated, but when it comes to more sophisticated robots, they have to be male.”
When I spoke to Richardson, author of An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines , she also noted this leads to female robot characters becoming just pieces of full people—a beautiful body, a caretaking nature—but not ones with full intelligence. This is largely true in Ex Machina—and not just because Nathan has a lab full of body parts—but also in a lot of movies where the artificial intelligence has to be packaged in a certain way if the robot is perceived to be female. (She also notes the real robotics world suffers from the same problems as a lot of AI fiction, but that “many robotic scientists are open to a conversation about this.”)
Women, whatever their qualities—intelligent, vulnerable, strong—are always presented in an attractive form, as if the package is the only way to deliver these qualities. Kathleen Richardson
“Sometimes the female robots have ‘violent’ characteristics (as Terminator 3’s T-X character), but it’s always presented in a beautiful form,” Richardson says. “Women, whatever their qualities—intelligent, vulnerable, strong—are always presented in an attractive form, as if the package is the only way to deliver these qualities. Male intelligence, strength, vulnerabilities, etc. can be delivered in a multiple and varied kind of outer packaging.”
Think of it this way: Ava demonstrates her consciousness/intelligence in a form and with a sensuality that David in Prometheus never had to. Short Circuit’s Number 5/Johnny Five was cute, but he never had to employ it for survival the way Pris did in Blade Runner. Even AIs with no physical form at all seem to get sexualized based simply on their voices. It’s not like HAL 9000 ever sparked up a relationship with Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey the way Samantha did in Her. “Her is playing on the fact that the audience knows what [Scarlett Johansson] looks like,” Richardson says. “No one really needs to know who the voice of HAL was, because HAL was an intelligent machine. We need to know about the disembodied voices of our AI avatars if they’re female so that males can buy into the ideas of the sexualized person behind the representation.”
If this argument about the roles women get in movies versus the roles men get is starting to sound familiar, it should. Ever since Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” film critics and fans have been monitoring the ways that women are represented and seen onscreen. (If you’ve heard the term “the male gaze,” this is why.) This ongoing discourse is the reason thing like the Bechdel Test, which started out just as a comic trip referencing Alien , struck a nerve and stuck around. The thrust of Mulvey’s argument is that the bulk of films are seen from a male perspective—that a woman in a film is often “tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.” Yes, Ava learns to use seduction as manipulation, and the audience might learn how screwed up that is because it’s more blatant when even a robot can pull it off, but Ex Machina doesn’t go any further in deconstructing the problem than that. She’s a bearer, not a maker.
Gender in the Turing Test
To be fair, not all of this is Ex Machina’s fault—or the fault of any AI film. Often, social constructs mandate that we gender most things, whether they’re intended to be gendered or not. Interstellar’s TARS looks like a Mies van der Rohe Kit-Kat bar, yet we refer to TARS as “him.” Is that because of the machine’s deep(ish) voice or because narrative constructs lead us to believe robots with scientific intellectual aims are masculine?
It’s nearly be impossible to tease the two apart, and that knottiness is baked into British computer scientist Alan Turing’s original test in a way that can never be removed. If the goal is for a machine can convince a human that it’s human, then the machine has to assume some kind of gender because we see all humans as having a gender. Even if, in the Turing test model, a judge is just looking at the output of a chatbot, he or she would ascribe gender to the output without even thinking about it. (Note the chatbot that convinced judges that it was real last year did so by convincing them it was a 13-year-old boy named Eugene.)
Ex Machina sidesteps this a bit by making Eva visible; Caleb he knows he’s talking to a robot, and knows what that robot looks like. Nathan just wants to “show you that she’s a robot and then see if you still feel she has consciousness.” What Nathan actually wants Caleb to do is something more akin to Blade Runner’s Voight-Kampff test, where the subject can flirt Sean Young-style but you know she’s a replicant. But if that’s the case, why does so much of Ex Machina focus on her proving that consciousness through flirtatious interactions and not, say, a discussion of the horrors of war? Johnny Five discovered mortality by crushing a grasshopper leading to a fear of being switched off, and we felt his plight all the same, why not Ava? (Don’t answer that.)
The thing is, Alan Turing himself actually might have wanted AI to be something akin to what Caleb wants: actual companionship. When WIRED spoke to screenwriter Graham Moore about The Imitation Game back in November he noted that much of Turing’s work in AI was about “bringing Christopher [Morcom, Turing’s first love] back.” But while Turing, if he would’ve ever been able to rebuild Morcom, would’ve been making someone he could talk to and share ideas with, the female representations of Turing’s dream in movies often personify it through far less intellectual pursuits. Think of David in Prometheus; his primary goal was assisting on the mission, not seducing Vickers. As a “male” AI in a film he was given an intellectual pursuit, not a romantic one. Is it possible Ava could’ve convinced Caleb she passed the test with fewer pleading glances and more analysis of world affairs? What would Ava have done to pass if she was a he?
Obviously, wanting affection is part of what makes us human; by showing that, Ava is showing a highly-evolved part of herself. But by only showing that, and her highly manipulative nature, she is left as a less-than-whole character. She’s almost the colder, darker side of Her’s Samantha, who served as a Manic Pixie Dream Operating System. Like Her, Ex Machina is a smart, beautiful film. But when the only female lead in your movie is one whose function is to turn the male lead on while being in a position to be turned off, that says a lot about what you think of the value of women in films. Saying it’s the result of your protagonist being “creepy,” as Garland does, doesn’t really absolve you of that.