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  • Tom Gilchrist

Fatherhood Fears: Ex Machina


Great. Now we're going to be late for school.

I was buckling my 4-year-old daughter into her car seat one morning as she repeatedly slapped me across the face and cackled, when I finally got a little annoyed. It’s not so much that it hurt (it did) but that it was taking forever to adjust her seat so we could leave for nursery school. My daughter is a whiz at finding new ways to make us late in the morning, and I knew this was exactly what she was doing. That’s really what made me angry. Her lack of empathy. If she didn’t feel bad about the pain to my face, I at least wanted some credit for my plight as her chauffeur. So I told her, very sternly, to stop hitting me. She stopped, but she looked at me like I was now some kind of monster. And then she burst into tears. Once she recovered, she explained. “Dad, I didn’t like it when you told me to stop hitting you!” For my non-breeding friends, yes, you sometimes hear this sort of complaint as a parent, and you just have to take it in stride, start from square one, and build up an understanding with your little one about what it means to exist in a world of other human beings who may not enjoy being pummeled. Little kids don’t seem to view their own raw impulses as right or wrong, only pure uncolored potential. The data points gleaned from your reactions come later. I imagine some version of this is going on whenever loftier minds go about programming artificial intelligence. That slapping incident was still fresh as I re-watched Alex Garland’s Ex Machina recently and, being a frustrated screenwriter myself, I'd also read his screenplay. The film is often billed as “an examination of our fears of Artificial Intelligence” and that's exactly what it is on its slick, well-marketed surface. But I searched around and I found out that Alex Garland is also a parent. So I wondered, why would someone of his clear artistry make a work of fiction just to "examine our fears about AI"? I mean, you can do that in a 20-minute segment on 60 Minutes, or find a similar inquiry in any number of magazine articles at your local supermarket checkout stand. A real filmmaker, I reasoned, needn’t sweat blood for two years crafting a film about humanity's relationship with AI any more than, say, our relationship with plastic. Or with table salt. Or Penguins. Such examinations are, in fact, what documentaries are for, and they are often quite good at it. No, I'd rather think Alex Garland gave birth to his breakout film to instead examine the limitations of our good, old-fashioned human intelligence; intellectual, social, emotional, and also his fears about the purveyors of it: our friends, our tribes, and yes, even the developing minds of our children. He'd made this film, perhaps, to examine our, and thus his own, humanity. In this way, Garland shares a bit of craft with writer/director John Cassavetes, who veered at times so far into character that it became his sole means of developing his plots. (If you haven’t yet checked out that latter filmmaker, perhaps start with Faces (1968), and don't be surprised by its moments of pure character-driven ingenuity as Seymour Cassel, like Oscar Isaac here, holes himself up with his female subjects to booze, dance, pontificate and obfuscate along his road to nowhere, serving only the emotional growth, and eventual survival, of the women he looks down upon.)

Garland is not afraid of character. That's a good thing.

In Ex Machina, I saw my own worst fears as a parent played out in Ava (the AI of the film) as we glimpse the world, and ourselves, through her newly-minted eyes. It’s revealed (in the screenplay especially) that she is merely processing information, giving feedback to get a desired result. Sound familiar? Essentially, Ava is a sociopath. In parent-speak, that's every 4 year-old. She's high-functioning enough that the story hints at our own obsolescence, even extinction, once she’s set free into our habitat, and here Garland's blend of concept and human investigation makes for not only great Sci-Fi, but also great, personal, storytelling.

As a parent, Ex Machina also caused me to panic, and I didn't always know why. It's not just because I know that, as grownups, we're inevitably supplanted by the next generation. It was more the confirmation that our modern world is moving toward a less compassionate, less friendly baseline, and our connectedness via the web and our wireless devices has only divided us further, making the future for my own "only child" potentially all the more lonely. In such a place, I don’t always know what to teach my daughter, even while she’s slapping me across the face. In a society that increasingly rewards those who just take what they want, who follow their own worst impulses, and which marginalizes the weak, the idealistic, and even entire groups based on genetics and gender, what values can you successfully instill, especially when prosperity today depends so much upon self-promotion, or even arrogance?

So, my little girl's hungry mind is a bit like that of the AI. Even though she’s bombarded with strong, human emotions daily; filtering, processing, even shutting down when it’s all too much, at the end of the day she’s just looking to make sense of the world. She’s looking for a positive result. Part angel, animal, and yes, part sociopath, she’s walking the long familiar path of human development that has led us down through the ages, and so Ex Machina begs the question: Which parts of her, and of us, will continue on that journey? What does Ava need to survive?

“The film is definitely not supposed to be a cautionary tale about AI’s. The caution is all aimed at the humans, from my point of view…My anxieties are about people, and not machines.” - Alex Garland

Will the next leap of human development be an abandonment of empathy? Society only feeds this fear, as does the portrayal of Ava's own de facto "father" in the film, Nathan (Isaac), himself an egotistical misanthrope. Self-absorbed in his role of creator, he never engages with Ava's intelligence once created, never nourishes or guides her, only studies her as though she might spring fully-formed into a healthy person. As a model of absentee parenthood himself, what outcome could he really expect? I wondered, as she fled, where does Ava wind up once she reaches the mainland? Cable News? Fox? How long before she owns the place, reaches out through electronic tendrils of the airwaves, social media, bots and apps, until she subtly turns humankind into something our ancestors would scarce recognize, and might stand aghast to meet? Without love, that's a real danger. So, back again to what we teach our own daughters, and what we model for their developing young, wholly natural minds. What traits do we value in each other? Bravado? Strength? Pity? Which do we respect? Which do we fall in love with?

Ava is here now, watching us closely while we choose. She learns quickly, having used only a bit of latex skin and artificial hair to trap Caleb, closing the vault without a backward glance at his certain, painful extinction. She adds this data of success to her tables, and she moves on.

“Daddy, I didn’t like it when you told me to stop hitting you.”

That still hangs in the air as I climb into the car. I gave my kid a reply that day, something between the Golden Rule and Stand Your Ground, but I don't really know if it helped her. Worse, I don't really know if I told her the truth.

I said, "Love, you don't get an opinion on someone else's pain. And if you don't like that, just keep crying."

Not exactly Mister Rogers, I know. What would you tell your child? Perhaps our best answers as parents, as in Ex Machina, will only be known well after the end of the story.

Excerpt from Ex Machina, by Alex Garland:

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