This past Spring, a fascinating sci-fi movie started turning a few heads—Ex Machina, directed by Alex Garland. The film features one of the older Weasley brothers (Domhnall Gleason) and the psycho king from the most recent version of Robin Hood (Oscar Isaac). Not only should you see it (92 on rottentomatoes.com), you should see it yesterday. Since it’s been out a while, I’m not going to worry too much about spoilers…so here’s a brief look at the plot:
Employee Caleb (Gleason) gets a chance to hang out with the boss, Nathan (Isaac).
Boss has robot.
Boss asks employee to run a Turing Test on robot.
Everything goes to hell.
Ex Machina is stylish, nuanced and spends far more time on human nature rather than special effect oohs and ahhs about the robot herself (named, “Ava”). And, right from the start, you can tell that I made an interesting decision with the way I referred to her. As a her. Caleb is asked to perform a series of interviews on Ava to determine whether or not her programming could pass as a form of humanity.
The original Turing Test was theorized by the famous British mathematician, Alan Turing, as a way to determine if a computer could successfully demonstrate artificial intelligence. The human would interact, through text, with an unknown entity–either human or computer. If a computer could convince the tester that it was a human, the test would be passed and artificial intelligence would be achieved. Consider the difficulty of this test. How would you try to determine the humanity of the hidden responder? Nuanced humor? Turns of phrase? Attempt to provoke or uncover emotion?
In the movie, Caleb is allowed to see his subject (unlike the original test) but ordered to perform the test anyway. Could something you know as robotic transform into something human? Something with personhood? Caleb begins to see Ava as a “person” under some form of inappropriate servitude to his boss; thus, the story plays out in this uncomfortable situation. The central question to the plot now changes: Having been convinced that AI and personhood are present in the machine, should Caleb assist in the “liberation” of Ava?
One of the genius moves of the movie is not what is happening to Domhnall Gleason’s character (the employee), Caleb…as he attempts to uncover the human-like qualities of Ava. The genius is what happens to the viewer of the movie as he/she is manipulated by the director before the on-screen Turing Test even begins. The instant I saw the form and face of Ava on the movie screen, I was sold. I started treating her like an autonomous individual—as one who had bodily integrity and even, dare I say, some form of human rights. A robot. With human rights. I most certainly did not experience this set of feelings as I watched Interstellar’s TARS robot, which essentially looked like an enormous walking Playstation.
Ray Kurzweil, the famous futurist and Googler, predicted something similar at the level of society. In his The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), he predicted that, by 2029, there would be “a growing discussion about the legal rights of computers and what constitutes being ‘human.’” Also, that machines would “claim to be conscious. These claims [would be] largely accepted” . The face makes the case. If Americans express outrage over the rights of a single lion killed in a distant country, is there any doubt that we’ll eventually ascribe our home personal machines at least some form of legal protection?
The face is what makes the person, a person. Or, in the case above, the addition of a face can transform the robotic into the human…at least at some level. We’ll automatically, and without fail, begin to ascribe personhood to anything that has believable facial features—inquisitive eyes, goofy ears, crooked smiles and all. If a robotic form had every bit the human structure (i.e., arms, legs, torso), but a featureless head, I’m not sure any emotional connection would develop. A person’s embodied face is the center of communication and emotion; it captures and reveals the most subtle forms of humanity.
We’ll automatically, and without fail, begin to ascribe personhood to anything that has believable facial features—inquisitive eyes, goofy ears, crooked smiles and all.
With prenatal 3D imaging, the image of the face turns a bump on your belly into your son or daughter. It’s difficult to see it as impersonal tissue after you’ve borne witness to its eyes, nose, and ears.
Perhaps that’s why I think there’s no small irony in naming a computer program, Facebook. In fact, many online social networks strip identity away from the person using it for the sole reason that the countenance of the user has been modified, lost, or otherwise forgotten. Conversely, apps like Skype, Facetime, and (to a lesser degree) Snapchat protect the user’s humanity to a degree that I find encouraging. Even a 2D face is better than nothing at all.
My wife and I lived in downtown St. Louis for a couple of years. We were fortunate to live next to the only supermarket downtown, a trendy place called Culinaria. Once or twice over that span, I saw an elderly lady panhandle at the front of the store. She literally had no face. Three-fourths of her face was missing, replaced with a scarred, smooth skin with little bone structure below. I do not know her story…that alone drives me to the cross in repentance. I do remember how I reacted when I saw this woman the first time. My gut instinct was revulsion. I had difficulty locating the humanity because I had no interface with which to latch onto. To my shame, I do not remember talking to her.
Shame. Also manifested in the very physical act of hiding one’s face.
God refused to reveal his face to Moses in Exodus 33, albeit metaphorically speaking, as God is spirit. In that instance, God’s “hiddenness” protected Moses from overwhelming glory and perhaps divine judgment as it encounters a sinful man, even one as renown as Moses. Yet God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, walked beside the world – anyone who desired could see his actual embodied face, no doubt some reached out to touch it. Disciples and betrayers kissed it. I’m not sure I grasp the significance of this tension, except to say that it fits within a greater tension: God’s nearness and God’s distance.
The nearness of God and the distance of God is something we must wrestle with throughout our lives. The distance of suffering, sin, grief, mystery, the Temple curtain, even the intense desire to hear God’s audible voice just once. The nearness of prayer, the Sacraments, the Incarnation, God with us, the torn curtain, worship. He both shields his face as we are not yet ready for his full glory as God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, coming to reign in the Last Days…and he opens his face to us on the cross, there for the world to see. And, there on the tree, in a brutal reversal, God hides his face from his Son.
Only, at the end of time, when all things are accomplished, will the full face of God meet the full face of humanity without shame. Full dignity. Full communion. Fully face-to-face.
And that’s when we’ll be fully human, once again.
 Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines (New York: Penguin, 1999), 279-80.
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.