by Michaela Medveďová
During their short history on Earth, humans have been responsible for quite a number of terrible things. But they have also been the creators of many technological wonders which altered their living conditions – from something as simple as the wheel to something as complex as the Internet. However, it is safe to say that humans will truly become the masters of their own existence once they create a being with true artificial intelligence which is modelled after their own image. While it still sounds like something from a science fiction movie, with a humanoid robot Sophia becoming an actual citizen and giving interviews, it seems that this is the direction in which the human race is moving.
There is a reason why such a future sounds as if taken out of a science fiction screenplay – it has been a frequent topic in many literary and film works in the science fiction genre in the 20th and 21st centuries. And no other word in the English language is more central to the topic of artificial intelligence than “robot”. Interestingly, the origins of the word and of the concept of robots have nothing at all to do with the English language – it was a contribution of a 1920 science fiction play R.U.R. by a Czech author Karel Čapek. This introduction of robots is a sombre prophecy about the end of the human race at the hands of their own creations turned from servants to revolutionaries – synthetic robotic beings almost indistinguishable from humans which would, after almost a century of evolution in the vocabulary of artificial intelligence, somewhat ironically be called androids today rather than robots.
Yet apart from the dystopian nature of the play, R.U.R. also introduces its audience to questions of the unavoidable metamorphosis of humanity into something different as it comes into contact with this level of technology. And central to this is arguably the perception of humanness – of both how we as human creators perceive the possible humanity of our creations with artificial intelligence, and how, in turn, this affects what we think has a crucial role in making us human.
Do they look the part?
The debate whether robots – or androids, operational systems, or any man-made, sentient beings – are simply mindless machines or whether they have independent thoughts, feelings and desires has long been prominent in the works of science fiction writers. From Blade Runner (adapted from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence to more contemporary pieces such as Her or Westworld, despite the variety of beings with artificial intelligence portrayed in the works, it is not only the characters in them who are faced with a philosophical dilemma when in contact with these beings. The viewers have to make their decision as well on two crucial questions – do I think that these ‘beings’ are really intelligent? And more importantly, do I then think of these sentient beings as human?
A significant part of this decision is the way beings with artificial intelligence look on the outside. When it is housed within an android, the being looks indistinguishable from a person. Yet the same anthropomorphic trend can also be observed with metallic robots – their appearance has not been consistent throughout the history of cinema but it seems to always come back to having humans as models. As Schaefer and colleagues explain:
The majority of fictional robots are portrayed as metallic versions of humans, with two arms, two legs, a torso, and a complete face. As technology advanced, especially in visual media, deviations in physical structure began to emerge. The evolution of the fictional robot in visual media has transitioned from the initial depiction of a robot as a metallic human replacement to that of a boxlike “man,” followed by a mobile machine. Most recently, it has returned, in contemporary times, to a surrogate human form. (14)
This anthropomorphic tendency seems to be the answer to the difference between considering a robot or an android intelligent, and actually considering it human. A case in point is when people talk to a ‘personal assistant’ (e.g. Siri or Alexa, which are predecessors for operation systems from sci-fi movies), without actually thinking they could have a quality conversation with them. And yet they are still going to be alarmed and apologize if they bump into a mannequin in a shop. This speaks volumes about the fact that while it is our intelligence and language abilities which make us different from other animals, in order to consider someone human, it is crucial for them to look human as well. It seems that it is our bodies, not minds, which we as a human race consider to be a more defining characteristics of our humanity.
A fragile attraction
Many science fiction works seem to agree by putting the bodies of AI beings into the spotlight. A recent American science fiction film Ex Machina (2014) is among them – one could argue that it actually is all about the ‘human’ body. In the movie, a young programmer Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) is summoned by his boss Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who founded the world’s most-used search engine, to his isolated estate to evaluate ‘Ava’ (Alicia Vikander), the AI android he has created. . However, there is something different about this particular Turing test, or the test to prove if a machine has true intelligence. Over several sessions, Caleb is actually in the same room as Ava and clearly sees that she is not a human being. He is curious why the shift in the test happened:
CALEB: It’s just – in the Turing test, the machine should be hidden from the examiner.
NATHAN: No, no, we’re way past that. If I hid Ava from you, so you just heard her voice, she would pass for human. The real test is to show you that she’s a robot.
Why bother with the test at all if Nathan already knows the intelligence of his creation is undeniable? Well, with a shift in the test conditions, there was also a shift in its purpose – Caleb did not arrive to rationally test Ava’s intelligence, he came to interact with her and react to her presence and her body, just like he would with another human being.
While Caleb – and in extension, the entire audience – is initially unaware of how big of an effect Ava’s body will have on his own and on his judgement, the seeds are there from the first moment he lays eyes on her. Ava is, at that point of the movie, still only a half-android – her face is fully human and her feet and hands are covered in skin, but the rest of her body is mechanical, with some parts fully transparent, showing inner structures. But there is still something distinctly human – and attractive – about her which goes beyond her face. As Constable states regarding Ava:
[There is an] impression of fragility and tactility that accords with traditional analyses of beauty and human femininity. Ava’s body exempliﬁes many of the key qualities Burke attributes to the beautiful, speciﬁcally: smallness of stature, delicacy in the intricate details of her mechanical workings, smoothness in the polished, transparent body parts and skin, and fragility – a creature of silver, light and spun glass. (292)
Even though when Caleb meets Ava for the first time, he is still purely interested in her mind and conversational abilities, the way she is built already captures his feelings of attraction and protectiveness reaching beyond the fact that a humanoid android is simply far more familiar and acceptable to him than a talking box would be.
However, she ceases to be an object for Caleb to study, and instead becomes a ‘woman’ for him to admire when, in a later session, she puts on clothes and a wig, covering all parts of her that do not look human. In this key scene it is clear how he battles with the realization that he is no longer only curious about her because she is a state-of-the-art piece of technology but because she is very attractive, he would actually like to take her out on the date they talk about, and it looks like these feelings are mutual. She looks girly and innocent in her outfit, and as he knows, but the audience only realizes in the end, it feels as if she materialized out of his pornography search. This realization clearly makes him uncomfortable, which Ava herself notices after asking him if he is attracted to her:
AVA: The way your eyes fix on my eyes and lips. The way you hold my gaze, or don’t. Do you think about me when we aren’t together? Sometimes, at night, I’m wondering if you’re watching me on the cameras. And I hope you are. Now your micro expressions are telegraphing discomfort.
Yet afterwards, the following scene shows Caleb as he watches her undress on camera; a clear look of longing and arousal on his face, and no trace of his previous confusion.
While Caleb was focused on what he thought his mission was – figuring out if Ava thinks for herself – he was curious in how her linguistic capabilities worked and how Nathan had actually programmed her. Put simply, he treated her like an exciting object to study, very lifelike, but still only an object. The sexual reaction her body provoked in his – either before, because she looks fragile and delicate and there is something undeniably beautiful, even about her mechanical structure, or after she dresses up and successfully passes for human – was the trigger point, and Ava became a human being for Caleb. Her mind mattered only a little; it was her body which made it happen.
Clothes maketh the (hu)man
But her body is not only important to Caleb – it is clearly important for Ava as well. She sees that she is different from people, and she needs to cover the differences if she wants to be considered a human being, not a product. However, even if she was only a product, she would still be a man-made one – and therefore she naturally shares human obsession with outward appearance.
In another important scene, Ava is seen dressing up in women’s clothes. She is focused because her primary goal is to make Caleb compliant in her plan to escape which he ultimately does, costing Nathan and himself their lives. But she also visibly enjoys that she has dresses and can touch the soft fabric – it seems that she tries them on or at least looks at them often. When she picks one and starts putting it on, she is very careful as if it was something precious. She wants to look pretty and by the look of nervousness she has when she comes back to Caleb, she is also eager to be seen as pretty.
This makes the android very human as in the society the level of a person’s attractiveness often equals the amount of social power or currency they have. As Frederick and colleagues point out: “A person’s physical attractiveness can have a substantial impact on the way others treat them in social interactions” (629), be it in romantic interactions or not. Ava thus did not just want to look beautiful, she also wanted to make Caleb admire her as much as possible.
However, as explained by Frederick and colleagues, given the bleak resolution of the film, there is also a more sinister motivation in her aiming to become more appealing as it:
reflects the idea that people, whether consciously or unconsciously, assume that a person’s attractiveness reflects a person’s inner characteristics and this results in more positive feelings and beliefs regarding attractive men and women. This bias is reflected routinely in the popular media. In a previous analysis of 100 popular films in the United States from the past 50 years, attractive characters were more likely to have larger roles in the film, to play a ‘good’ rather than a ‘bad’ character, and to experience better outcomes in the film. (629)
Ava thus also appealed to Caleb’s judgement and made sure he thought she was pure and innocent and good by looking exactly like that. The same goes for her outfit at the end of the movie. By picking up a form-fitting, yet innocence-evoking dress paired with extra high heels and a long wig, the android does not only automatically increase her social currency by looking attractive, she also leaves a first impression of an innocent victim.
This double focus on bodies in Ex Machina helps establish the superior importance of bodies in the definition of humanity. However, bodies come with many stereotypes which the film further reaffirms. There is something familiar about the way Ava looks before and after she becomes a full android with clothes on. As Constable states: “In accordance with contemporary standards, Ava is youthful and very slender – the insubstantial shaping of the glass corset creating a new technological size 0” (292). Even if the ideal of a perfectly thin and young body is slowly being replaced, mostly in the fashion industry, by more healthy-looking or even diverse bodies, the ideal is still there – and it seems that it is so deeply-rooted that it serves as the default model for a robotic build. Not only does the movie affirm it; they also take it one step further by creating a being that will never gain weight and never grow old.
Moreover, the way Ava looks is not just in the background of the story – in some sense, her attractive body is central to it as it is the reason why Caleb was attracted to her in the first place and she was able to manipulate him into helping her escape. The film transcends the importance of physical attractiveness in human relationships into a much more problematic area as it makes Ava’s perfect body and her attractiveness into something quite indispensable in her life.
The essence of humanness
While science fiction films are only works of fiction, they arguably have great significance. They are no longer a means of foretelling the future as one could argue humankind has already entered it. On the contrary – sci-fi’s biggest value is in presenting humans of today with a mirror. By putting humans in confrontation with a different species, sci-fi is able to showcase some traits that define humanity as a whole.
Ex Machina‘s AI android Ava is a part of the Turing test, albeit a different one. It is her appealing feminine body which is on trial of lifelikeness instead of her mind, and she is definitely not a subject. In an ironic turn, by being subjected to expectations and stereotypes, she becomes the interrogator towards the entire human race personified in the character of Caleb. Ex Machina then shows that in our society, there is an equation between the approval of the body and the affirmation of the status of a human being.
Because of her anthropomorphic build which seems fragile and feminine, Ava starts to be humanized in Caleb’s eyes by evoking feelings of protectiveness in him. This process of turning Ava from an object to a woman is then completed as she passes for a human woman by dressing up and covering her metallic parts. She thus passes the Turing test not after the immediate affirmation of her mental abilities, but after the affirmation of her body as human after it manages to produce a sexual reaction in another human being. The status of body and appearance as the crucial part of human nature is confirmed by Ava herself as she takes visible pleasure in making herself more beautiful, therefore humanizing herself.
Yet at the same time she does this to increase her own social currency granted to her by her perfect body and eternal youth. But by placing such importance on bodies the film, in consequence, places similar importance on the ideal of a perfect body and physical attractiveness in human interactions, and thus both follows the status quo in the society and further reaffirms it. Ex Machina, and science fiction movies in general, thus seem to show that the technological metamorphosis of what we consider human would not be so radical – however, they also show that some of the features humans ultimately carry over this threshold can be far from progressive.
This article is a revised part of a midterm paper and a final paper which the author submitted as a requirement in her Master’s degree course at the University of Southern Denmark, and which was later edited to be briefly published on the author’s personal blog as a requirement for another course.