Love In The Time Of Robots: A Chat With Ex Machina Director Alex Garland

“Humans find it very easy to project an emotional life into almost anything. People get very attached to their cars”.”

February 12, 2016

In the blink of an eye, it seemed, Tinder went from punchline to a bit of societal bedrock. Any stigma over incorporating our technology into our romance and our lust is dissipating into nothingness. So, what’s next? In 2013, with Her, Spike Jonze imagines us not using technology, but falling for our technology: Joaquin Phoenix is a man in love with his operating system. Last year, with the gorgeous and startling Ex Machina, the writer and director Alex Garland went further.

In Garland’s movie, an alcoholic billionaire hermit-genius has created a self-aware humanoid android named Ava. The billionaire recruits a meek, low-level employee of his company to his far-off estate/research-lab/dance-palace. The employee has a task: take Ava through the Turing Test, which asks—is this machine’s intelligence indistinguishable from human intelligence? Things are beautiful and placid and then, in the grand tradition of talky sci-fic, schizophrenic and insane. And in the process, the employee effectively falls in love with the machine. Before it's all over, we find out if that love is real.


Ahead of Valentine’s Day, we got Garland on the phone. If we are indeed moving toward a future of free love between us and the robots, who better to talk to?


Your movie is set in an unstated near future. But things move fast these days! Since its release, have you noticed anything that’s pushed us closer, or even past, some of the realities of the movie?


[Long pause] No. Not really. [Laughs]. I have noticed there have been some incredible kind of breakthroughs with AI and they will continue to happen. It’s not about whether a machine is sentient or not, but... for example, the DeepMind project—it’s a subsidiary of Google which has a very interesting cutting edge AI project—just announced that they have developed an AI that can beat human players—very, very high level players—in a game called Go [Reports Wired: "[Previously] with Go—a 2,500-year-old game that’s exponentially more complex than chess—human grandmasters have maintained an edge over even the most agile computing systems."] And that’s a pretty amazing and a pretty incredible breakthrough. And it’s the kind of path that is going to lead to some pretty amazing places. But that’s still a long way back from a machine that knows it's a machine.

The idea of a human loving a robot is something to which a lot of people, just on a gut level, have a negative reaction. Do you expect that stigma to go away? Are you seeing it already starting to go away? Or do you predict that it'll be a long time before robot/human love gains widespread acceptance?

One thing—just to step back—I try not to get involved with specifics... but just about whether it’s a human or an inhuman thing, it seems obvious that it is a human thing. Humans find it very, very easy to project an emotional life into almost anything. You know, people get very attached to their cars. If they have their first car when they’re 18 and they sell it when they’re 24, sometimes, people burst into tears. It’s just a bunch of metals. But people get incredibly emotionally invested. We do that with stuff all the time. Or it can be an animal that doesn’t have any kind of complicated thoughts. We kind of treat them as if they do. For me, it's a small jump [to robot/human love]. I figure we do that kind of stuff anyway.


Here’s the central question, I guess: will this inevitable development of AI eventually, at some point, serve to make us less lonely? Or more?

I have no idea, really. And we're not gonna know the answer to the question until there are machines that a human can have meaningful interaction with. In a way, a film that probably explores that in a better way is Her, because, in that instance, it’s getting rid of the physical completely. It’s turning it into a cell phone and showing that even then you can have essentially a love-like experience with an AI. All I can see is that it doesnt seem unlikely to me. I can imagine that. Nor does it bother me. I just think people are the way they are.

During the promotional campaign for the movie, you guys had Ava “match” and “chat” with random people on Tinder. That was very clever. Were you involved in that directly?

No. In fact, I didn’t know what Tinder was 'till that happened. I’ve got a lot of interest in computers and AIs and science and stuff but I’m also weirdly out of touch with lots of stuff that goes on, particularly through social media. And so, no I had no idea of that when it happened. They had to explain it to me after.

Have you learned about it since? This is more or less the same question as before: do you have any sense of whether technology is, in the long run, making people less or more lonely?

Well, you know, I guess it doesn’t really matter how people meet as long as they click. But with this kind of thing, I think it’s to do with my age—I’m in my mid-40s, and I just missed the boat with a lot of it. When Myspace came along I couldn’t have anything to do with it. Likewise with Facebook and Twitter. I literally know what these things are, I just don’t have any personal experience with them. It’s like asking your grandfather to work a remote control DVD. I know it’s a gray box that switches the TV on and off. But after that I get confused.

There’s certain academics—specifically, Nick Bostrom at Oxford—who are well known as doomsayers when it comes to AI. There are others that argue that we are, in fact, a long way away from a genocidal robot uprising. Since the movie’s come out have you become a part of that community, and that debate?

Yeah, it wasn’t so much since the film was released, it was more in the making of it. And in the attempt to present stuff in the right kind of way, and in a reasonable way. So I got to know a few people in the academic world, and also in the world of research and private corporations. And I learned a lot from them. But always, ultimately, I’m a layman. There’s a level in which they’re talking and I can’t talk. But it’s always fascinating to hear what they’re saying.

Sure. Right. But, in your opinion—are the robots going to kill us all?

Well I’m not someone who is particularly scared of AIs. I’m much more scared of people than AIs. People give us a lot of evidence each and every year, through history, about why we should be alarmed. Our behavior patterns... the kind of things we can get up to when societies start to collapse... I think humans are a much more real and present danger.

Love In The Time Of Robots: A Chat With Ex Machina Director Alex Garland