Tag Archives: A.I.

Failed Critics Podcast: The Pod In The Machine

robocop vs terminatorOpening the pod bay doors on this week’s Failed Critics Podcast and simultaneously rescuing us from the brink of disaster is our special guest, Matt Lambourne.

Matt joins regulars Owen and Steve for a one-off ‘Artificial Intelligence’ themed episode! And by that we don’t just mean Owen is pretending to be cleverer than he actually is again…

There’s still a main review which sees the team discuss Alex Garland’s directorial debut, Ex Machina; the story of a potentially sentient machine called Ava who is the subject of a Turing test. In honour of which, the trio have resurrected the ‘triple bill’ segment to discuss three of the most interesting uses of A.I. in film that they could each think of. Steve had to be on top form to prevent the podcast from turning into a playground RoboCop vs Terminator debate for the next 60 minutes!

Join us again next week as things get back to normal with Callum guesting on the podcast for reviews of Kingsman: The Secret Service and Big Hero 6.

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A.I. In Film

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

I’d love to say that’s a quote from a sci-fi action film such as Dredd, or a Japanese anime such as Ghost In The Shell, or any other iconic sci-fi movie dealing with the rise of the machines for that matter. Instead, it’s a direct quote from one of the greatest minds of our time, Professor Stephen Hawking, when speaking to the BBC last year. The crazy nut.

Essentially, it’s a theory that fascinates me, so to tie in with last week’s release of Ex Machina, this week’s release Big Hero 6, the soon to be released Chappie, and the next ‘Artificial Intelligence’ special edition of the Failed Critics Podcast, I’ve decided to take a look at the role A.I. has played in a few famous films.

2001_30
Image courtesy of http://blushots.weebly.com/2001-a-space-odyssey.html

Artificial Intelligence is of course something that already exists in some forms in the real world; whether you’re referring to a Tamagotchi toy or even a digital Mario that can learn to beat its own game without assistance.That said, a sentient form of life created from wires and silicon is still something very much reduced to the realms of science fiction. Although the dictionary definition is somewhat oblique, what we generally mean when we refer to A.I. is the full, true, conscious self-awareness of being in an unnatural device manufactured by a person. A type of intelligence that we possess as humans, that we arrogantly claim does not (or cannot) exist in the same way in any other creature or mechanical computer. An automaton that is rather than simply does.

It is of course frequently used as the motivation of a terrifying baddie in a film, such as the killer androids on the loose in Westworld. But that’s not really an artificial intelligence. It’s more like a malfunctioning pre-programmed robot executing a series of commands. You know, if you want to get all nerdy.

Similarly, whilst there are some grey areas, such as in Paul Verhoeven’s sophisticated and ultra-violent film RoboCop, where you’re asked to consider if it’s a man inside a robotic body or robot with a man inside of it, A.I. doesn’t really refer to cyborgs either. They obviously cross-wires, so to speak, but a human brain inside of a tin can is still a biological entity. More than what we might consider A.I., which is a completely manufactured form of intelligence.

Of course, the very notion of a sentient mechanoid is enough to give even the most sensible minded person the heebie-jeebies. With that in mind, allow me to pick out five different – although equally terrifying – uses of artificial intelligence in film (albeit admittedly slightly predictable choices!)


terminator 2Skynet and the Terminators (first appearance: The Terminator, 1984)

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first, shall we. If the mere concept of an intelligent military computer causing a nuclear war based on its own logic isn’t something that sends shivers down your spine, then maybe the idea of being chased by an unstoppable shotgun-wielding motorbike-riding nightclub-crashing robot is. No? How about a relentless melty-man who can turn his hands into sword-like objects and stab you through the throat? Yeah, now we’re getting somewhere. There are many incarnations of A.I. throughout the Terminator film series, but perhaps none are as chilling as that initial idea of a single sentient machine deciding to wipe out the human race and cause a full scale world war. The clever twist in the sequel, T2: Judgement Day, is that the A.I. is both the hero and the villain of the story, of course. But the lasting legacy of the series that James Cameron started over 30 years ago now is that spine-tingling chill of the first military owned A.I., Skynet, that will inevitably lead to the destruction and genocide of the entire human race.


HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968)

You and your fellow astronaut buddy are on a exploration mission through space, the rest of your colleagues safely frozen in their cryogenic pods. Everything is all hunky dory. Well, right up until the supposedly unerring on-board computer has the awareness to make a decision that you and your crew are expendable. halLogically speaking. That is exactly what the A.I., HAL, does in Stanley Kubrick’s epic 1968 science fiction 2001: A Space Odyssey. It doesn’t necessarily make HAL a villain in the sense that he’s wrong or evil, he’s simply decided of his own accord that ridding himself of the crew will make his mission more efficient and thus heightens the viewers insecurities. Just how necessary are we, really? Maybe that is why HAL is so scary. Not because of his unemotional, sterile voice, as he ruthlessly decides to do away with his crew, but because for the most part he’s an abstract tool; just a solid red light in a metal cube that makes us feel inferior solely by existing in the first place. He’s influenced virtually every version of A.I. in film since, from Ash in Alien to Auto in Wall-E.


TRANSCENDENCEDr Will Caster (Transcendence, 2013)

It’s fair to say that both Callum and I had a difference of opinion over last year’s summer sci-fi blockbuster Transcendence. While the quality of the film overall is not a debate I intend to bring up again any time in the near future, the idea that Johnny Depp’s character, Will Caster, could have his mind transported to that of a quantum computer is an intriguing idea. Is the piece of hardware simply simulating what the mind of its creator would do in a very pre-determined and programmed way; is it actually the mind or soul of a human controlling the machine; or is the computer acting completely of its own volition? Do these even count as artificial intelligence is also a debate I don’t want to get into. What makes it worthy of inclusion on this list is the suggestion that after your physical body dies, you could have your mind imported into a computer. It’s the whole “brain in a jar” scenario that’s been used so many times before, although without a physical biological brain. The film does have an inevitable consequence as it drifts towards being about love rather than anything particularly meaningful, but there’s still a neat little idea tucked away in there somewhere!


Roy Batty (Blade Runner, 1982)

Of course a list of sci-fi films about the use of artificial intelligence wouldn’t be worth its salt without the inclusion of this Ridley Scott classic, adapted from Philip K Dick’s novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’. Whilst theroy batty role of Deckard, the bounty hunter played by Harrison Ford, is probably more synonymous with the movie, it’s the tragic story of the blonde android suffering from an existential crisis played by the charismatic Rutger Hauer that is arguably the most accomplished and well rounded aspect of the story. It begs the question, just because we can create an A.I., should we? Is it fair? It goes right back to science fiction 101 in that man wasn’t meant to play God, dabbling in sciences that we don’t truly understand. Not from a technical point of view; clearly within the context of the film, people understand how to create artificial intelligence, but perhaps not so much the consequences of gifting life and then taking it away. Perhaps the ease at which we’re ready to hit the ‘off’ switch is in turn something we should fear more than pressing the ‘on’ button in the first place.


aiDavid (A.I. Artificial Intelligence, 2001)

All right, I’m aware that perhaps even more obvious than any of the other inclusions, a film literally called Artificial Intelligence worming its way onto my list is not particularly imaginative. Especially when I haven’t even mentioned characters like Robby The Robot, C-3PO, Fassbender in Prometheus or poor ol’ Johnny 5. Nevertheless, I had to include the little boy who will never grow up, abandoned by those who created him to replace their ill son and forced to spend the rest of his time with the creepiest looking sexbot ever and his bizarre teddy bear. It’s quite a sad film, with the whole idea of replacing someone you’ve lost (or are losing) with a Pinocchio-esque robot being a rather moving subject. David narrowly escaping destruction with all the naivety of a real human boy; the apparent genuine feelings of loss and abandonment that David experiences; as well the final 20 minutes of the film, it will make you completely empathetic towards what is essentially nuts and bolts. It’s a marvellous juxtaposition between life and non-existence. The ending to the Christmas special episode of the TV series Black Mirror, called ‘White Christmas‘, drew similar feelings of anxiety about existing forever as an artificial life-form. It’s not a faultless film, of course, but deals with the complexity of A.I. better than most other films ever have.


And that’s it! Look out for the podcast due out this week where I chat to both Steve and special guest Matt Lambourne on the same topic, as well as reviewing Ex Machina in full. Until then, cheerio.

Ex Machina

Never mind what I think of this well plotted, intelligent and entertaining sci-fi drama; how does Ex Machina make you feel?

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

ex machinaDeus ex machina, literally “God from the machine”, is presumably a phrase you’ve come across at some point in your life. I was first made aware of its proper meaning by a friend of mine a long time ago when talking about some comic book or other. He explained it as like when a God steps in at the last minute at the end of a Greek tragedy to save the hero (such as Athena stepping in at the end of the Odyssey). It’s probably why the phrase is sometimes also referred to as “the hand of God”. Traditionally introducing a device – divine or otherwise – when the characters are backed into a corner to produce a happy ending.

Think of those bloody eagles in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. All seems lost, the characters have no tricks left up their sleeve, doom is imminent. Suddenly, *poof*, just like that they’re rescued by some massive birds out of nowhere and all is well again… save for the fact they’re now stranded on the top of a rather tall mountain, but that’s besides the point.

Quite how the film’s title Ex Machina relates to the plot of Alex Garland’s directorial debut is fairly self explanatory. Suffice to say, ‘God from the machine’ is more appropriate than (the erroneous) ‘hand of God’. Garland is already familiar to most cinephiles as a novelist and the screenwriter behind some of Danny Boyle’s best work; including 28 Days Later, Sunshine and the original novel for The Beach. Not only that, he’s recently found more cult success by being the mighty pen behind Judge Dredd and his deadly lawgiver in 2012’s action thriller Dredd. Given that his name is also attached to an upcoming Halo film, you would be forgiven for perhaps expecting this sci-fi about potentially the most advanced form of Artificial Intelligence to also be rather loud, colourful and explosive.

Forgiven, because you would be wrong. Just like the script for the similarly ominously low-key and unsettling sci-fi that Garland also adapted, Never Let Me Go, the role of Ex Machina appears to be less about dazzling you with special effects (as amazingly well realised as they are with the mechanical Ava gliding across the screen, full internal cogs whirring inside of her transparent abdomen) and more about making you think. Or, I suppose, as fitting as it is, making you feel. Putting logic to one-side and using your imagination and full range of emotions to be affected rather than to analyse. To really be a human and not a machine.

Which leads me on nicely to the plot! It revolves around the talented Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson’s character ‘Caleb’, an American programmer working for a company that owns and develops the world’s leading internet search engine. We are first introduced to Caleb as he’s sat at his desk, white headphones protruding from his ears with stilted sound emanating as he checks his email inbox to find he has won a competition. His prize is to spend a week with the company’s CEO, Nathan, at his wilderness retreat. What transpires is that Nathan (played by the often underrated yet exceptionally talented Oscar Isaac), despite being a heavy drinker, believes he has created a genuine Artificial Intelligence called Ava; and Caleb is to be the lucky recipient who gets to perform the Turing test on it to determine if it (or ‘she’) is sentient or not.

Throughout the course of the film, Garland attempts to navigate a few of the more theoretical issues and complexities of AI by having Nathan drag Caleb away from his very analytical approach to the Turing test. He’d rather Caleb simply express how he feels when communicating with Ava, which is a perfectly acceptable way to prevent the film being bogged down in philosophies and jargon. It can be a little grating when films make characters speak out loud their emotions; if an actor and a script is good enough, you shouldn’t have to have someone explicitly state that they feel anything, you should just be able to see it and know. However, such is the type of film Ex Machina is that it really does work to quickly and succinctly help you understand the nature of the relationship developing between its three primary characters.

Speaking of whom, Ava’s plight is wholly sympathetic whilst being shrouded in a menacing aura. Trapped for her entire existence in a small glass room by Nathan, never experiencing the outside world or anything beyond the confines of her cage, she seemingly begins to form a bond with Caleb. Quite possibly due to the way she looks (rather like the stunning actress Alicia Vikander that’s playing her, funnily enough) you immediately empathise with her; you want her to be free. It’s a natural gut instinct to feel that putting someone behind bars who hasn’t done anything wrong is unjustified. In a way, it makes her the good guy. But being behind a window, separated from human contact like that, it does also add an element of danger to Ava. Before Caleb first meets her to commence the experiment, he notices a slight crack in the partition, which suggests either someone was trying to get in, or that something was trying to get out. As Ava declares that Caleb is the first human she has met other than Nathan, it sets the tone for what’s to come very fittingly. Some of the conversations that Ava and Caleb have during their sessions are both fascinating and, like other parts of the film, genuinely amusing. The film is not completely bone dry; as much as every scene gives the impression that it means something, how funny it can be takes you by surprise on occasion.

There’s also quite a few themes that Garland brings up along the relatively tight 108 minute run time. An impending robocalypse being one of them, as you might expect! The thought of the human race being wiped out by a race of super computers is not an entirely new theory, but is always terrifying to think about. Garland also brings the role of sexuality into his film, and how it’s required in a species. That it’s a need to be a sexual entity, rather than completely sexless, in order to force an organism (for want of a better word) to grow and to evolve. If you’re not already wondering why Ava is designed to look female at the point in the movie when Nathan explains his decision, then it’s a good point for the audience to re-evaluate what has been seen so far. Why would Nathan, a man, attempt to create self-aware intelligence and choose to make it look, act and behave like a female? What is his purpose? There’s a lot of questions raised if you look for them beyond basically “why is character [a] doing [this]”.

Another topic that is called into question is that of information gathering. Putting your life into a search engine term that creates something as a whole to define who you really are is quite a scary concept. The idea that Nathan’s company would scan everybody’s phones, their cameras, their profiles and search history (illegally, mind you) in order to make his robot learn to look and act more human is deeply disturbing. You also don’t have to be a genius to work out that it is in no small part a social commentary on what we are already doing in the real world. Or even what certain companies who own internet search engines could well be doing with that information right now. You have no idea – and more worryingly, no control.

It’s also a bizarre coincidence that Domhnall Gleeson was in the Black Mirror episode ‘Be Right Back’ where he played a lifelike synthetic representation of his character after an artificial personality profile was compiled using data from his online presence. Both this episode and Ex Machina attempt to make you aware of the digital footprint you are leaving every single day and how costly that may be.

There’s a quote from Ex Machina which has appeared in the theatrical trailer, where you hear Ava say to Nathan:

Is it strange to have made something that hates you?

There are many ways to interpret this line. At first, you could easily interpret this as Ava, a machine with a true consciousness, simply detesting her manufacturer for locking her away, depriving her of both the world outside and the man she has apparently grown to act like she loves. Of course whether this love is something programmed into her, something she has developed naturally, something unquantifiable, or whether it’s not really love at all, is not really the point being made in this particular line of dialogue.

Another way to look at it is as a genuine question about whether it is normal for a creation to hate its creator? Again, drawing on themes not explicitly discussed such as religion perhaps and even looking at the role of father/daughter relationships. A rebellious teenage girl doing whatever the opposite of her dad wants, or man’s spurning of a God who supposedly loves them, or rather more sinister is the idea that a machine is looking down on an inferior species with a cold and calculating disdain. There are many ways to look at it and the beauty of the film is that it never closes off these avenues for you. It’s open, it’s out there, and it’s for you to decide what you think.

As the plot goes on, things get a bit weirder without ever straying too far from its slightly predictable basis. The manner in which the final act will occur is not completely hidden from the viewer early on – and it does feel slightly rushed to get to the main point. But it is yet another clever example of the difference between man and machine. It’s why success in a species cannot be defined by who will live the longest, or whose population will be densest, or even who is the most intelligent. The smartest man in the room is not always right. However, as a proposal of some interesting ideas, acted out well by its cast with a completely engrossing plot and some sharp writing, it’s an entertaining way to spend an hour and a half watching the birth of an artificial intelligence that does not require your clothes, your boots or your motorcycle.

Ex Machina is in UK cinemas right now and will be the main review on this week’s special ‘Artificial Intelligence’ themed Failed Critics Podcast.