Ex Machina: A shot in the arm for smart sci-fi


Alicia Vikander as Ava in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina

IT’S a rare thing to see a movie about science that takes no prisoners intellectually. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is just that: a stylish, spare and cerebral psycho-techno-thriller, which gives a much-needed shot in the arm for smart science fiction.

Reclusive billionaire genius Nathan, played by Oscar Isaac, creates Ava, an intelligent and very attractive robot played by Alicia Vikander. He then struggles with the philosophical and ethical dilemmas his creation poses, while all hell breaks loose. Many twists and turns add nuance to the plot, which centres on the evolving relationships between the balletic Ava and Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a hotshot programmer invited by Nathan to be the “human component in a Turing test”, and between Caleb and Nathan, as Ava’s extraordinary capabilities become increasingly apparent

Everything about this movie is good. Compelling acting (with only three speaking parts), exquisite photography and set design, immaculate special effects, a subtle score and, above all, a hugely imaginative screenplay combine under Garland’s precise direction to deliver a cinematic experience that grabs you and never lets go.

The best science fiction often tackles the oldest questions. At the heart of Ex Machina is one of our toughest intellectual knots, that of artificial consciousness. Is it possible to build a machine that is not only intelligent but also sentient: that has consciousness, not only of the world but also of its own self? Can we construct a modern-day Golem, that lumpen being of Jewish folklore which is shaped from unformed matter and can both serve humankind and turn against it? And if we could, what would happen to us?

In Jewish folkore, the Golem is animate being shaped from unformed matter.

In Jewish folkore, the Golem is animate being shaped from unformed matter.

Putting aside the tedious business of actually building a conscious AI, we face the challenge of figuring out whether the attempt succeeds. The standard reference for this sort of question is Alan Turing’s eponymous test, in which a human judge interrogates both a candidate machine and another human. A machine passes the test when the judge consistently fails to distinguish between them.

While the Turing test has provided a trope for many AI-inspired movies (such as Spike Jonze’s excellent Her), Ex Machina takes things much further. In a sparkling exchange between Caleb and Nathan, Garland nails the weakness of Turing’s version of the test, a focus on the disembodied exchange of messages, and proposes something far more interesting. “The challenge is to show you that she’s a robot. And see if you still feel she has consciousness,” Nathan says to Caleb.

This shifts the goalposts in a vital way. What matters is not whether Ava is a machine. It is not even whether Ava, even though a machine, can be conscious. What matters is whether Ava makes a conscious person feel that Ava is conscious. The brilliance of Ex Machina is that it reveals the Turing test for what it really is: a test of the human, not of the machine. And Garland is not necessarily on our side.

Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) discuss deep matters of AI

Nathan (Oscar Isaac) and Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) discuss deep matters of AI

Is consciousness a matter of social consensus? Is it more relevant whether people believe (or feel) that something (or someone) is conscious than whether it is in fact actually conscious? Or, does something being “actually conscious” rest on other people’s beliefs about it being conscious, or on its own beliefs about its consciousness (beliefs that may themselves depend on how it interprets others’ beliefs about it)? And exactly what is the difference between believing and feeling in situations like this?

It seems to me that my consciousness, here and now, is not a matter of social consensus or of my simply believing or feeling that I am conscious. It seems to me, simply, that I am conscious here and now. When I wake up and smell the coffee, there is a real experience of coffee-smelling going on.

But let me channel Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, for a moment. What would it seem like if it seemed to me that my being conscious were a matter of social consensus or beliefs or feelings about my own conscious status? Is what it “seems like” to me relevant at all when deciding how consciousness comes about or what has consciousness?

Before vanishing completely into a philosophical rabbit hole, it is worth saying that questions like these are driving much influential current research on consciousness. Philosophers and scientists like Daniel Dennett, David Rosenthal and Michael Graziano defend, in various ways, the idea that consciousness is somehow illusory and what we really mean in saying we are conscious is that we have certain beliefs about mental states, that these states have distinctive functional properties, or that they are involved in specific sorts of attention.

Another theoretical approach accepts that conscious experience is real and sees the problem as one of determining its physical or biological mechanism. Some leading neuroscientists such as Giulio Tononi, and recently, Christof Koch, take consciousness to be a fundamental property, much like mass-energy and electrical charge, that is expressed through localised concentrations of “integrated information”. And others, like philosopher John Searle, believe that consciousness is an essentially biological property that emerges in some systems but not in others, for reasons as-yet unknown.

In the film we hear about Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment. His premise was that researchers had managed to build a computer programmed in English that can respond to written Chinese with written Chinese so convincingly it easily passes the Turing test, persuading a human Chinese speaker that the program understands and speaks Chinese. Does the machine really “understand” Chinese (Searle called this “strong AI”) or is it only simulating the ability (“weak” AI)? There is also a nod to the notional “Mary”, the scientist, who, while knowing everything about the physics and biology of colour vision, has only ever experienced black, white and shades of grey. What happens when she sees a red object for the first time? Will she learn anything new? Does consciousness exceed the realms of knowledge.

All of the above illustrates how academically savvy and intellectually provocative Ex Machina is. Hat-tips here to Murray Shanahan, professor of cognitive robotics at Imperial College London, and writer and geneticist Adam Rutherford, whom Garland did well to enlist as science advisers.

Not every scene invites deep philosophy of mind, with the film encompassing everything from ethics, the technological singularity, Ghostbusters and social media to the erosion of privacy, feminism and sexual politics within its subtle scope. But when it comes to riffing on the possibilities and mysteries of brain, mind and consciousness, Ex Machina doesn’t miss a trick.

As a scientist, it is easy to moan when films don’t stack up against reality, but there is usually little to be gained from nitpicking over inaccuracies and narrative inventions. Such criticisms can seem petty and reinforcing of the stereotype of scientists as humourless gatekeepers of facts and hoarders of equations. But these complaints sometimes express a sense of missed opportunity rather than injustice, a sense that intellectual riches could have been exploited, not sidelined, in making a good movie. AI, neuroscience and consciousness are among the most vibrant and fascinating areas of contemporary science, and what we are discovering far outstrips anything that could be imagined out of thin air.

In his directorial debut, Garland has managed to capture the thrill of this adventure in a film that is effortlessly enthralling, whatever your background. This is why, on emerging from it, I felt lucky to be a neuroscientist. Here is a film that is a better film, because of and not despite its engagement with its intellectual inspiration.

The original version of this piece was published as a Culture Lab article in New Scientist on Jan 21. I am grateful to the New Scientist for permission to reproduce it here, and to Liz Else for help with editing. I will be discussing Ex Machina with Dr. Adam Rutherford at a special screening of the film at the Edinburgh Science Festival (April 16, details and tickets here).

There’s more to geek-chic than meets the eye, but not in The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. (Spoiler alert: this post reveals some plot details.)

World War Two was won not just with tanks, guns, and planes, but by a crack team of code-breakers led by the brilliant and ultimately tragic figure of Alan Turing. This is the story as told in The Imitation Game, a beautifully shot and hugely popular film which nonetheless left me nursing a deep sense of missed opportunity. True, Benedict Cumberbatch is brilliant, spicing his superb Holmes with a dash of the Russell Crowe’s John Nash (A Beautiful Mind) to propel geek rapture into yet higher orbits. (See also Eddie Redmayne and Stephen Hawking.)

The rest was not so good. The clunky acting might reflect a screenplay desperate to humanize and popularize what was fundamentally a triumph of the intellect. But what got to me most was the treatment of Turing himself. On one hand there is the perhaps cinematically necessary canonisation of individual genius, sweeping aside so much important context. On the other there is the saccharin treatment of Turing’s open homosexuality (with compensatory boosting of Keira Knightley’s Joan Clarke) and the egregious scenes in which he stands accused of both treason and cowardice by association with Soviet spy John Cairncross, whom he likely never met. The requisite need for a bad guy does disservice also to Turing’s Bletchley Park boss Alastair Denniston, who while a product of old-school classics-inspired cryptography nonetheless recognized and supported Turing and his crew. Historical jiggery-pokery is of course to be expected in any mass-market biopic, but the story as told in The Imitation Game becomes much less interesting as a result.

Alan Turing as himself

Alan Turing as himself

I studied at King’s College, Cambridge, Turing’s academic home and also where I first encountered the basics of modern day computer science and artificial intelligence (AI). By all accounts Turing was a genius, laying the foundations for these disciplines but also for other areas of science, which – like AI – didn’t even exist in his time. His theories of morphogenesis presaged contemporary developmental biology, explaining how leopards get their spots. He was a pioneer of cybernetics, an inspired amalgam of engineering and biology that after many years in the academic hinterland is once again galvanising our understanding of how minds and brains work, and what they are for. One can only wonder what more he would have done, had he lived.

There is a breathless moment in the film where Joan Clarke (or poor spy-hungry and historically-unsupported Detective Nock, I can’t remember) wonders whether Turing, in cracking Enigma, has built his ‘universal machine’. This references Turing’s most influential intellectual breakthrough, his conceptual design for a machine that was not only programmable but re-programmable, that could execute any algorithm, any computational process.

The Universal Turing Machine formed the blueprint for modern-day computers, but the machine that broke Enigma was no such thing. The ‘Bombe’, as it was known, was based on Polish prototypes (the bomba kryptologiczna) and was co-designed with Gordon Welchman whose critical ‘diagonal board’ innovation is in the film attributed to the suave Hugh Alexander (Welchman doesn’t appear at all). Far from being a universal computer the Bombe was designed for a single specific purpose – to rapidly run through as many settings of the Enigma machine as possible.

A working rebuilt Bombe at Bletchley Park, containing 36 Enigma equivalents. The (larger) Bombe in The Imitation Game was a high point – a beautiful piece of historical reconstruction.

A working rebuilt Bombe at Bletchley Park, containing 36 Enigma equivalents. The (larger) Bombe in The Imitation Game was a high point – a beautiful piece of historical reconstruction.

The Bombe is half the story of Enigma. The other half is pure cryptographic catnip. Even with a working Bombe the number of possible machine settings to be searched each day (the Germans changed all the settings at midnight) was just too large. The code-breakers needed a way to limit the combinations to be tested. And here Turing and his team inadvertently pioneered the principles of modern-day ‘Bayesian’ machine learning, by using prior assumptions to constrain possible mappings between a cipher and its translation. For Enigma, the breakthroughs came on realizing that no letter could encode itself, and that German operators often used the same phrases in repeated messages (“Heil Hitler!”). Hugh Alexander, diagonal boards aside, was supremely talented at this process which Turing called ‘banburismus’, on account of having to get printed ‘message cards’ from nearby Banbury.

In this way the Bletchley code-breakers combined extraordinary engineering prowess with freewheeling intellectual athleticism, to find a testable range of Enigma settings, each and every day, which were then run through the Bombe until a match was found.

A Colossus Mk 2 in operation. The Mk 2, with 2400 valves, came into service on June 1st 1944

A Colossus Mk 2 in operation. The Mk 2, with 2400 valves, came into service on June 1st 1944

Though it gave the allies a decisive advantage, the Bombe was not the first computer, not the first ‘digital brain’. This honour belongs to Colossus, also built at Bletchley Park, and based on Turing’s principles, but constructed mainly by Tommy Flowers, Jack Good, and Bill Tutte. Colossus was designed to break the even more encrypted communications the Germans used later in the war: the Tunny cipher. After the war the intense secrecy surrounding Bletchley Park meant that all Colossi (and Bombi) were dismantled or hidden away, depriving Turing, Flowers – and many others – of recognition and setting back the computer age by years. It amazes me that full details about Colussus were only released in 2000.

Turing’s seminal 1950 paper, describing the ‘Imitation Game’ experiment

Turing’s seminal 1950 paper, describing the ‘Imitation Game’ experiment

The Imitation Game of the title is a nod to Turing’s most widely known idea: a pragmatic answer to the philosophically challenging and possibly absurd question, “can machines think”. In one version of what is now known as the Turing Test, a human judge interacts with two players – another human and a machine – and must decide which is which. Interactions are limited to disembodied exchanges of pieces of text, and a candidate machine passes the test when the judge consistently fails to distinguish the one from the other. It is unfortunate but in keeping with the screenplay that Turing’s code-breaking had little to do with his eponymous test.

It is completely understandable that films simplify and rearrange complex historical events in order to generate widespread appeal. But the Imitation Game focuses so much on a distorted narrative of Turing’s personal life that the other story – a thrilling ‘band of brothers’ tale of winning a war by inventing the modern world – is pushed out into the wings. The assumption is that none of this puts bums on seats. But who knows, there might be more to geek-chic than meets the eye.

All watched over by search engines of loving grace


Google’s shopping spree has continued with the purchase of the British artificial intelligence (AI) start-up DeepMind, acquired for an eye-watering £400M ($650M).  This is Google’s 8th biggest acquisition in its history, and the latest in a string of purchases in AI and robotics. Boston Dynamics, an American company famous for building agile robots capable of scaling walls and running over rough terrain (see BigDog here), was mopped up in 2013. And there is no sign that Google is finished yet. Should we be excited or should we be afraid?

Probably both. AI and robotics have long promised brave new worlds of helpful robots (think Wall-E) and omniscient artificial intelligences (think HAL), which remain conspicuously absent. Undoubtedly, the combined resources of Google’s in-house skills and its new acquisitions will drive progress in both these areas. Experts have accordingly fretted about military robotics and speculated how DeepMind might help us make better lasagne. But perhaps something bigger is going on, something with roots extending back to the middle of the last century and the now forgotten discipline of cybernetics.

The founders of cybernetics included some of the leading lights of the age, including John Von Neumann (designer of the digital computer), Alan Turing, the British roboticist Grey Walter and even people like the psychiatrist R.D. Laing and the anthropologist Margaret Mead.  They were led by the brilliant and eccentric figures of Norbert Wiener and Warren McCulloch in the USA, and Ross Ashby in the UK. The fundamental idea of cybernetics was consider biological systems as machines. The aim was not to build artificial intelligence per se, but rather to understand how machines could appear to have goals and act with purpose, and how complex systems could be controlled by feedback. Although the brain was the primary focus, cybernetic ideas were applied much more broadly – to economics, ecology, even management science.  Yet cybernetics faded from view as the digital computer took centre stage, and has remained hidden in the shadows ever since.  Well, almost hidden.

One of the most important innovations of 1940s cybernetics was the neural network, the idea that logical operations could be implemented in networks of brain-cell-like elements wired up in particular ways. Neural networks lay dormant, like the rest of cybernetics, until being rediscovered in the 1980s as the basis of powerful new ‘machine learning’ algorithms capable of extracting meaningful patterns from large quantities of data. DeepMind’s technologies are based on just these principles, and indeed some of their algorithms originate in the pioneering neural network research of Geoffrey Hinton (another Brit), who’s company DNN Research was also recently bought by Google and who is now a Google Distinguished Researcher.

What sets Hinton and DeepMind apart is that their algorithms reflect an increasingly prominent theory about brain function. (DeepMind’s founder, the ex-chess-prodigy and computer games maestro Demis Hassabis, set up his company shortly after taking a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience.) This theory, which came from cybernetics, says that the brains’ neural networks achieve perception, learning, and behaviour through repeated application of a single principle: predictive control.  Put simply, the brain learns about the statistics of its sensory inputs, and about how these statistics change in response to its own actions. In this way, the brain can build a model of its world (which includes its own body) and figure out how to control its environment in order to achieve specific goals. What’s more, exactly the same principle can be used to develop robust and agile robotics, as seen in BigDog and its friends

Put all this together and so resurface the cybernetic ideals of exploiting deep similarities between biological entities and machines.  These similarities go far beyond superficial (and faulty) assertions that brains are computers, but rather recognize that prediction and control lie at the very heart of both effective technologies and successful biological systems.  This means that Google’s activity in AI and robotics should not be considered separately, but instead as part of larger view of how technology and nature interact: Google’s deep mind has deep roots.

What might this mean for you and me? Many of the original cyberneticians held out a utopian prospect of a new harmony between people and computers, well captured by Richard Brautigan’s 1967 poem – All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace – and recently re-examined in Adam Curtis’ powerful though breathless documentary of the same name.  As Curtis argued, these original cybernetic dreams were dashed against the complex realities of the real world. Will things be different now that Google is in charge?  One thing that is certain is that simple idea of a ‘search engine’ will seem increasingly antiquated.  As the data deluge of our modern world accelerates, the concept of ‘search’ will become inseparable from ideas of prediction and control.  This really is both scary and exciting.