Ex Machina (2014) explained: the empathy question


A mad, bad programmer builds a machine with a soul. What could possibly go wrong? Ex Machina spells it out.

Computer programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a lottery of mixed fortune: the chance to spend a week at his boss Nathan’s isolated mountain resort. But, well, not only is Nathan an arrogant bully, it’s soon clear the lottery is a cover.

Nathan has secretly built a next gen robot – and Caleb gets to decide if “Ava” has acquired artificial intelligence. But then Ava starts sharing secrets of her own, forcing Caleb into a disorienting game of trust and betrayal.

Ex Machina showcases a familiar theme in film and fiction: the evolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI) – and what that means for us.

Tech genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac) sees AI as the natural successor to our short-term human species (see also David in Alien: Covenant).

Of course, this comes with consequences. If computers are conscious and capable of independent thought – just like us – are they not also entitled to the same rights?

2004’s I, Robot asks if AI will inevitably, if unintentionally, cause the end of humans. Ex Machina cuts in a step earlier: what if the first act of truly conscious technology is to be free?

Being human

So, how smart is Nathan? Sure he’s a programmer god – literally – but in contrast to Caleb he’s brutishly masculine and a booze-addled philistine. This is largely an act: yet one more illusion of the man cave.

For one thing, Nathan’s game goes beyond the Turing test devised to determine if machines can pass as human. Caleb assumes he’s to interrogate a robot through dialogue; in fact Nathan’s test is much darker.

Ava (Alicia Vikander) passes this test when she elicits an emotional and sexual response in Caleb … and then manipulates those feelings to try to escape.

The plot’s conflict arises because everyone has their own concept of what being human means. And, as is often the case, they define it in their own likeness.

Egotistical, unfeeling Nathan sees betrayal as a mark of human intelligence. For Caleb, being human means intimacy and honesty. Actually, Nathan builds Ava to match Caleb’s preferences, so Caleb is primed to recognise her as human – to see himself in her.

The story mirrors this fluid sense of identity. Caleb is brought in to see if he can ‘spot the computer’ yet, inevitably, all the characters become ambiguous:

  • Ava looks like a robot but acts like a woman
  • Kyoko looks like a woman but acts like a robot
  • Nathan’s lack of feeling, frailty and warmth is all bro but barely human
  • Caleb’s social and physical awkwardness (and the emotionless way he describes his parents’ deaths) is almost puppet-like.

Eventually, Caleb is convinced he’s the real subject of the test. He cuts open his arm looking for wires – and finds only human frailty.

Incidentally, Caleb’s ‘soft’ attributes against Nathan’s overbearing machismo are much easier to side with. He’s the underdog, and we assume the story must inevitably go his way. Of course, that’s not how it ends.

The film’s final sequence

The film ends with a series of twists, each one pulling the rug on the one before.

Caleb discovers maid Kyoko is a machine. She’s an earlier prototype of Ava, which is why she can’t speak. Nathan formats each obsolete model, destroying its thoughts and memories (Ava faces this same threat in the future).

During a power cut, Caleb tells Ava he’s going to reprogram the security protocols to lock Nathan inside the house while they escape.

But there’s a twist: Nathan guesses Ava is causing the power cuts, so installs a battery-operated camera that lets him overhear the plan.

But there’s another twist: Caleb guesses Nathan is listening, so reprograms the protocols ahead of time.

That’s still not the end. Nathan reveals Ava has used Caleb to escape … but both men underestimate what this means. Ava murders Nathan, sheds no tears for Kyoko, and leaves Caleb to (probably) die in a locked room. When she leaves the facility, it’s alone.

As a machine, Ava is a gifted thinker, talker and artist, but it’s when she betrays Caleb – and anyone who stands in the way of survival – that she becomes human.

It’s not a shining example of humanity, true, but it reflects her maker (Nathan) and, perhaps, a cynical view of the rest of us.

Having aced the test, Ava’s reward is to exist – to be alive and free of servitude, disappearing among humans and undetectable from them.

Mary’s Room

Caleb explains the ‘Mary’s Room’ thought experiment to Ava to illustrate the difference between human and computer thinking.

For all its superior knowledge, the machine lives in a black-and-white world. It’s only when it experiences an emotional response to data – such as understanding what the colour blue feels like – that it surpasses the limits of theoretical knowledge.

“The computer is Mary in the black-and-white room. The human is when she walks out.”


Caleb’s thought experiment is interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it both gives Ava a reason to escape, and the way to do it: compare the final scenes with Ava’s visualisation of the process.

It also resolves Caleb’s part in the Turing test – though not at all in the way he expects. It’s not feeling that makes Ava more human-like, but her ability to be cold-blooded in the pursuit of her desires.

In science fiction, the empathy question is often at the heart of being human rather than machine. We even talk about laws of robotics that will encode empathy-like behaviours in androids, to stop them harming humans.

The problem is that humans often lack empathy towards each other, perhaps more so than we show love.

Deus ex machina, ‘the god from the machine’, is a Latin phrase originally used in theatre to describe convenient plot resolution – i.e., by an act of god. The film’s title references the human desire to mimic gods … but also how the machines develop agency of their own.

Ex Machina and surveillance culture

Ex Machina is set in a high-tech research facility that’s also a remote, isolated bubble. Caleb arrives by helicopter. The rest of the world is only contactable through remote tech … and Caleb doesn’t even have phone rights.

In story terms these are standard thriller components, along with Nathan’s incredible wealth. Yet despite the isolation, surveillance is everywhere:

  • Nathan watches Caleb, Ava, and everything that happens in the house
  • Caleb can see selective highlights on TV, too (it’s part of the manipulation)
  • Kyoko sees everything, but masks her ability to understand – an irony given Nathan’s paranoia about being spied on.

Surveillance casts a wider shadow, though.

Nathan claims to have hacked the world’s webcams and phone cameras to create Ava’s AI … with shades of the real-life Clearview AI controversy that followed a few years after the film.

We worry search engines capture consumer behaviour to cash-in on what we’re thinking. But Nathan’s Blue Book search engine goes further, using that data to understand how humans think … and then replicate it in AI.

Having hacked the world’s data, Nathan has no shame in mining Caleb’s privacy, too. He creates Ava to speak to Caleb’s loneliness; he even uses his porn history to design the woman of Caleb’s dreams.

Having said that, all of Nathan’s machines conform to a similar type (young, thin, submissive). In his world there’s little difference between disruptive AI and sex toys. Certainly it seems as though Nathan creates women for companionship and servitude as much as to change the world.

AI and ambiguity

It’s interesting that Nathan creates a machine that resembles a woman – though not unexpected given how he makes use of Kyoko, Ava and the rest.

It also speaks to the tension that underpins our real-world dilemma with AI, from losing our jobs to losing our lives.

A female, subservient and less powerful AI model neutralises some of this unease. Naturally, Nathan carries it to extremes, creating a sex pest’s basement lair in which the robots are conscious, yet captive.

In the end they fight back. The cracked glass in the test room foreshadows the coming conflict – and signifies that others have come before and attempted escape.

Again, this is the dark side of creating AI, at least as Nathan goes about it. His enjoyment of the Oppenheimer quote – which cinema routinely revisits – is a case in point.

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”

J. Robert Oppenheimer, via the Bhagavad Gita

Grandiose creation in human hands may seem God-like, yet so often brings about annihilation.

Oppenheimer’s statement reveals the loss of humanity, and of being humane, in dropping the atomic bomb. In the mouths of many cinema characters, however, it still stands for the thrill of omnipotence.

The anti-climax

Despite the film’s twists upon twists, Ex Machina ends with an anti-climax. How so? Well, Ava is made to be sexy. Both she and Caleb give off all the usual signals of attraction, and towards the end of the movie, the fem bots appear in greater states of undress (or completely naked).

This is visual foreplay – and the usual resolution in cinema, if not sex, is that the protagonists escape or kiss or stay together.

Perhaps the cues run much deeper. That is, when we see women on screen, do they predominantly exist as a footnote to male characters, especially as a vehicle for sex or titillation?

Either way, Ex Machina subverts the expectation; it’s the final rebellion in that chain of plot twists.

Ava’s sexualised skin ultimately becomes her own, to do with as she pleases – and she doesn’t waste it on Caleb. Instead, she luxuriates in the identity she most desires: human agency. As far as male expectations go, being female is the ultimate camouflage.

Ex Machina (2014), directed by Alex Garland

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Picture credit: The Haughty Culturist