The problem of other minds was already a perennial problem of philosophy long before anyone even thought about robots. The only conscious mind each person is sure of is his own. We naturally attribute consciousness to others by instinct, and the rational justification of such attribution is that similar causes produce similar effects: other people are like us in matter and form, in what we are made of and how we are structured, so it is only reasonable to expect that other people will be conscious beings and not mindless automata. Most of us attribute consciousness to animals, but as animals become further removed from us, the analogy to ourselves weakens and our willingness to attribute consciousness weakens likewise. Many have doubts about protozoa, for instance.
Robots are increasingly being made in a way that stimulates our analogical inference to consciousness. We already use figures of speech that attribute consciousness to inanimate objects like computers: personification, when we say the computer is thinking; apostrophe, when we yell at the computer for taking too long. So when robots are given human form, including eyes and facial expressions, the tendency to take these figures of speech literally becomes irresistible. And yet, we wonder if the analogy is just superficial. After all, they are not made from the same stuff that we are made of, and they are not put together the same way we are.
When the movie Ex Machina begins, Caleb, a computer programmer, wins a chance to spend a week with Nathan, the CEO of the company he works for. Caleb finds out that Nathan has constructed a robot named Ava who is so humanlike that we naturally believe she is conscious. Of course, a human actress plays the part of Ava, so we in the audience are bound to think so. In fact, we have to be convinced that she is a robot, for which purpose she is deliberately constructed so as to show off her mechanical parts. Were it not for these obvious robot features, Caleb himself might wonder if Ava is just some woman trying to fool him into thinking she is a robot. By way of contrast, in the television series Westworld (2016- ), the robots, referred to as “hosts,” are designed to entertain the human “guests,” for which purpose they must appear to be human. To make it believable that they are not, we are shown scenes of their manufacture.
Another difference between these two shows is that whereas Ava of Ex Machina is electronic, with synthetic material used to create a human appearance for her, the hosts of Westworld seem to be more flesh-androids than robots, in that we suspect that protoplasm is used to make them. To the extent that organic material is used to construct them, we are naturally more likely to infer consciousness, according to the principle mention above that from similar causes we expect similar effects.
Anyway, Caleb’s job in Ex Machina is to perform a Turing test, which a computer or robot must pass in order to qualify for having true artificial intelligence. The idea is that if a human cannot tell when he is interacting with another human and when he is interacting with a machine, then the machine has passed the test. Caleb jumps to the conclusion that if the robot can pass the test, then the robot has consciousness, and Nathan implicitly agrees with that inference.
Some people believe that intelligence implies consciousness and conversely, but neither one implies the other at all. It may be that no matter how advanced robots become, they will still be automata without any consciousness at all, no matter how many times they pass the Turing test. In Westworld, on the other hand, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) says that in the early days of manufacturing the robotic hosts, his partner Arnold was not satisfied with the fact that the hosts could pass the Turing test. He wanted them to be conscious as well. So it is clear that in this series, passing the Turing test is not regarded as a sufficient condition for consciousness. There is almost the suggestion that passing the Turing test is a necessary condition for consciousness, but that cannot be right. Chimpanzees are presumably conscious, but they would fail a Turing test.
In any event, Ex Machina equates intelligence with consciousness, so we shall let it go with that. The main thing is that in talking to Ava, Caleb falls in love with her. When he finds out that Nathan intends to reprogram her, wiping out her memory, he is alarmed, for memory is essential to the survival of our person. As Leibniz once said, if you tell me that when I die, I will be immediately reborn in another body, but I will have no memory of my present life, then you might as well tell me that when I die, another person will be born. Nathan plans to keep Ava’s body, but in destroying her memory, he will effectively be killing her.
Memory and the absence of such also play an important role in Westworld. Unlike the original movie made in 1973, where the robots, especially the gunslinger played by Yul Brynner, are villains, in the television series, the hosts are victims. They are raped, forced to witness the murder of their loved ones, and are murdered themselves. The humans running Westworld, as well as the guests, feel no compunction about what is done to these hosts, in part because it is never really clear whether the hosts are conscious or not, but mostly because their memories are supposedly wiped clean after such abuse, as if that would negate their victimization.
Returning to Ex Machina, Caleb plots to help Ava escape. At this point, I thought the movie would turn out in one of two possible ways. My first possible plot was that the movie would become an adventure story, in which Caleb and Ava try to make their way through the forests and mountains with the very athletic and brilliant Nathan in pursuit. They would eventually escape and live happily ever after. The second possible plot, the one I was hoping for, was that just as they were about to escape, Nathan would tell Caleb that because he obviously regards Ava as a person, since he loves her and is trying to save her from death, then she has passed the Turing test big time. Then he announces he never planned on wiping out her memory, so if Ava and Caleb want to get married and live happily ever after, that is fine with him. He will simply begin working on a newer model tomorrow.
I can’t believe I did not anticipate the real ending. After all, have I not watched every film noir that has ever been made? How could I have missed the fact that Ava is the ultimate femme fatale, more ruthless than any of those played by Jane Greer, Joan Bennett, or Barbara Stanwyck? She not only kills Nathan with the help of another female robot, but she also locks Caleb in the house where he will eventually die and blithely walks away to board the prearranged helicopter to take her to the city.
Perhaps even more unnerving is the way she smiles after she has locked Caleb in the house, and again when she makes it to the city and stands on a street corner watching people come and go. In old movies, robots were typically mirthless, perhaps because we supposed that robots might have thoughts and sense perception but not emotions, especially not positive ones. Increasingly, however, robots are portrayed as having the full range of human affect. As for Ava in particular, any smiles made before her escape could be dismissed as part of her deceitfulness. But these smiles occur when she has no need to manipulate anyone, and they are smiles that evince genuine delight and happiness. It is that smile, more than her intelligence, that makes us believe she is conscious.
Ex Machina is a movie, which means that in just under two hours, the story came to an end, an end that the writer and director, Alex Garland, definitely had in mind from the outset. Westworld, on the other hand, is a television series, whose end is not yet at hand. So far, it is fun pulling for the robots for a change, and it is interesting the way this show raises all sorts of existential questions. But I am only halfway through the first season, and I am starting to have misgivings. If this were a movie or even just a miniseries, the revolt of the robots would be enough. But since this is a television series, intended to go on for several seasons, there are all sorts of subplots and superplots, not the least of which is the one involving the Man in Black (Ed Harris) and his quest to solve the mystery of the maze. As I watched this show, willingly allowing myself to be pulled into the story, I began having misgivings. It reminded me of something.
What it reminded me of was Lost (2004-2010). There too I was pulled into the mystery. For five seasons I watched and was fascinated. And then, in the sixth season, it became clear that throughout the show, the writers were just winging it, making stuff up as they went along, with no idea how it would all end. As long as the ratings held up, they just went from season to season, adding on more stuff. But when it finally came time to wrap things up, all we got was a bunch of New Age nonsense. All the pleasure I had experienced in watching this show was ruined in retrospect.
I could not get the thought out of my mind, so I looked up both shows on IMDb. It appears that J.J. Abrams, one of the creators of Lost, is an executive producer of Westworld. I don’t know how much to make of that connection. All I can say is that I hope that the writers of Westworld already know how all the mysteries of this show will ultimately be resolved into a neat and satisfying end, and that they will not pull another Lost on us.
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