How ‘Ex Machina’ Foresaw the Weaponization of Data

Date:16 January 2019 Author: Brendon Petersen Tags:, ,

Unlike technology, sometimes science fiction improves with age. Double Take is Popular Mechanics’ look back at sci-fi classics that have something prescient to say about today.

Four years ago, when Alex Garland’s instant sci-fi classic Ex Machina debuted, it dropped into a different era—the time before Cambridge Analytica, before Russian election trolling, before the catastrophic Equifax leak and too many others like it.

The world wasn’t naive, exactly. We’d spent decades knowing our personal data could be hacked, leaked, and abused by nefarious parties, of course. But back then, people tended to worry along individual lines, about a stolen identity or a maxed out account—not the data-driven mass manipulation that has been repeatedly uncovered over the past few years.

Ex Machina saw it coming. From a cursory watch, the movie plays as a classic AI apocalypse, rise-of-the-machines flick. But four very long years on, it’s easier to see what should’ve been clear all along. This is a movie about the weaponization of data. (Spoilers follow.)

If all you remember about the 2014 sci-fi movie is that it features one of the more unexpected dance scenes ever, here’s the quick recap of Ex Machina:

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer at a Google-esque company called Blue Book. After winning an internal lottery, he’s flown to a remote compound to meet Blue Book CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). Smith learns he’s going to be the human component of a Turing Test and is introduced to his robotic partner, Ava (Alicia Vikander), a humanoid robot powered by next-level AI.

As the movie unfolds, Smith and Ava bond during their one-on-one tests and Smith comes to abhor Bateman, whose drunken cruelty begins to outshine his genius. Smith eventually helps Ava escape, which results in her killing Bateman and locking Smith inside the compound in the process. The last shot of the film sees Ava wearing clothes and synthetic skin to obscure the electronics that had been exposed all film. She’s visually indistinguishable from a real human, on the crowded street of a city: a killer AI loose and incognito in the world of humans.


Looking back on the film now, it’s easier to see the deeper dread draped over Ava’s story. Before the movie even begins, Smith is already the victim of a data harvesting, his lottery “win” having actually been the product of extremely specific and invasive data-based targeting.

SMITH: And you didn’t select me because I’m good at coding.
BATEMAN: No. Well, no. I mean, you’re ok. You’re even pretty good, but—
SMITH: You selected me based on my search engine inputs.
BATEMAN: They showed a good kid.
SMITH: With no family.
BATEMAN: With a moral compass.
SMITH: With no girlfriend… Did you design Ava’s face based on my pornography profile?

This is no arbitrary gut punch either. It’s the payoff of a seed planted much earlier in the film. While Bateman is ostensibly Ava’s creator, she’s more of an amalgamation of data stolen from thousands. When Bateman reveals that Blue Book hacked the world’s cell phones to steal data for molding Ava, he gestures at an even large matrix of snooping someone of his stature would be privy to. “And all the manufacturers knew I was doing it, too,” he says. “But they couldn’t accuse me without admitting they were doing it themselves.”


Data theft—though (probably) not wanton theft on the massive scale Bateman alludes to—was already happening when Ex Machina came out in the U.S. in 2015. The fiction in this sci-fi was Ava: a truly convincing humanoid, powered by an AI, with all the cunning and guile of a Machiavellian human. In 2015, Ava was a metaphor for the danger ahead. Now, she’s becoming real.



No, we still don’t actually have androids sophisticated enough to pass themselves off as human, and we probably won’t for a while. But the use of AI—particularly in weapons and security—has only accelerated since Ava’s fictional escape, whether that’s Google’s controversial contract to make AI image recognition software for military drones (which Google, like Blue Book, was less than forthcoming about) or efforts in the U.K. to implement a Minority Report-esque system to pre-identify criminals.

The UN has a treaty convention called the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons that is currently considering rules against autonomous weapons, but not with the urgency the matter entails. Having decided to take a look at such weapons in 2013, as of August, the CCW has almost agreed to start negotiating on rules.

What’s more, evidence is mounting that AI doesn’t need to be a malicious weapon to be dangerous. Chatbots trained on human data slide into racist diatribes, while AI hiring managers organically develop wildly sexist worldviews based on pre-existing data.

In 2019, Ex Machina feels more like a work of terror, not horror. It taps into the sense that we’ve begun a process of giving ourselves away, and it’s one we can’t stop. As a culture, we’ve long fretted about whether an advanced AI could develop a mind of its own and rival our humanity with something truly alien. We’ve also worried that with our increasing willingness to abandon notions of privacy, we were giving away important information about ourselves. The genius of Ex Machina was to see the way those two things are connected—and how the latter is, in fact, leading to the former.

Which is why that unexpected dance scene is perfect. The first time you watch this movie, it feels like a tonal mismatch, funk music and disco lighting dropped into a movie of Jobsian austerity. But at the end of the film, when Bateman’s assistant has been revealed as an AI herself, it takes on a sinister ambiance in line with the rest of the film—and, chillingly, with the moral of the story and its parallel reality. It would be foolish to imagine humans could lead such a dance forever.

Originally posted on Popular Mechanics

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