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Life With and Within the Robot

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The robot Ava from Ex Machina.
  • The robot Ava from Ex Machina.

The other night I went to the movies with my cousin Dominick Vanacore, and we saw Ex Machina. One of my principles of film is that any movie worth seeing once is worth seeing twice, and Ex Machina qualifies.

It's the story of a programming genius (modeled after a search-engine billionaire who goes into other stuff, much in the spirit of Google) who develops both the mental algorithm and the physical engineering for extremely vivid human-styled robots.

The action begins when one of his employees arrives at the research and development compound, which looks like it's located in rural Alaska with the weather of Hawaii. The employee's job is to perform the Turing test on one of the robots—to engage with the robot and determine whether it's convincingly human.

The Turing test was conceived by Alan Turing, one of the inventors of computing (such as the concepts of "computation" and "algorithm"—or automated reasoning). His test involved whether a human can distinguish human intelligence from machine intelligence. In Ex Machina, it's performed as a series of interviews between Caleb Smith and the robot, who's called Ava.

Director Alex Garland (a Brit—this ain't from Hollywood) intentionally did the film low-budget, because with less money you have to have a stronger concept and rely on acting rather than special effects. That said, the CGI used to create the human robots is utterly convincing. They spent their budget well.

The scenario is set inside a massive, mostly underground facility that is designed for security and surveillance. Every move, sound, activity, entrance, and exit is controlled by computer programming. But Ava indeed has a mind of her own. Caleb is charmed by Ava from the first moment. The test is over when it begins.

We find out, though, that Ava has been specifically designed based on Caleb's own preferences, as discerned from studying what and where he searched on the Internet—especially his preferences for porn. She's designed to play right into his needs and desires.

Ava passes the Turing test, and a lot of bad things happen in the process. I would love to tell you exactly what, but I don't want to reveal too much. What we get, however, is the perfect metaphor for the current Internet and the potential future of society: machines that cannot be distinguished from humans.

Currently this is not because the machines are so advanced but rather because most humans are so easy to fool. Most perception is really projection. We see what we think we are. But then something odd happens, which is that we become like the environment in which we function. Humans are becoming like machines more rapidly than machines are becoming humans.

This takes some perceptive skill to see. The Internet is an environment, and by a definition I like to work with—that of Marshall McLuhan—an environment is an invisible phenomenon. Most people do not consider the Internet a robot, but that's exactly what it is, and it's exactly how we use it.

It becomes visible when we have problems, or some other factor changes the patterns we're used to processing below the surface of consciousness. Mercury is currently retrograde in Gemini, making several contacts to Neptune in Pisces. Mercury is the worldly god of technology and communication. Neptune is the worldly god of the imagination, deception, dreams, and intoxicating substances.

Put them together in the digital environment and we are likely to get some observable effects, or rather, effects worth observing. Mercury retrogrades are a time to pay attention and tune into the environment; the challenges make that environment more noticeable, and your responses to it easier to feel.

This blend of retrograde Mercury plus Neptune would alone be the perfect blend to create this effect, but currently we also have Mars in the mix, which is adding energy in the form of impulse, determination, frustration, and anger.

In sussing this out, let's start with anger. Many people are pretty pissed off as it is. We normally tend to gloss over this with social graces or, alternately, ignoring one another. Various numb-out substances, predominantly liquor and prescription meds, also push anger below the surface. They are coping mechanisms.

But if you look at the constant state of war, and its popularity, and the prevalence of violence and why people indulge in so much psychic violence in the form of films, TV, and games where people are constantly dying (or being possessed by evil spirits, or raped, or stolen from), the shadow side of society is easier to see.

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