(Wo)Man in the Machine

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Isn’t it strange, to create something that hates you? – Ava, Ex Machina

This summer artificial intelligence is on our screens in a big way. Ex Machina the directorial debut film from Alex Garland features a beautiful, humanoid robot Ava played by Alicia Vikander whose capacity for intelligence is being tested by a naïve programmer Caleb, at the behest of her megalomaniacal creator, Nathan. The film cleverly balances performances from Oscar Isaac as the creepy mastermind of the entire experiment and Alicia Vikander who as Ava tows the line between sympathetic and manipulative in her own right but overall the film asks two questions: 1. Is Ava capable of intelligence and feeling; and, 2. If she is, what right does anyone have to control her? When you add to the mix that Ava is designed as a female robot, Ava’s humanity and personal autonomy takes on deeper meaning. Ava finds herself, like so many of the failed experiments before her, beholden to her creator but also struggling to break free of him. She uses Caleb’s attraction to her to manipulate her way to freedom and by the end we see Ava’s full agency as she literally peels away the discarded pieces of her predecessors to form a new, whole human body before stepping into the light and starting her new life.

Visually, Garland gives the audience a lot to digest. The pieces of the other (all female) robots Nathan has built are all hidden away in closets like discarded marionettes. The dark, underground, claustrophobic environment Ava is kept in seen through the cracked glass she’s beaten again in an attempt to gain her freedom. Although Ex Machina is tightly scripted and visually arresting, it does fall somewhat short of explicitly addressing Nathan’s proclivity for female robots and how that interacts with his need for control over everything in his environment. The film leaves a lot to audience interpretation. It grasps at these concepts without fully realizing them. In contrast, Humans the newest summer series on AMC, takes these concepts and fully runs with them.

Humans is set in a not so distant future where intelligent humanoid robots called Synths have become a part of every day life. It focuses on Anita, a Synth who has consciousness and feeling until she is captured by Synth dealers and reprogrammed and sold to an unsuspecting family as their domestic. The series has just hit its halfway mark and so far Anita has dealt with the teenage son of the house trying to cop a feel from her as she recharged, and the father activating the “adult options” when he becomes fed up with his wife’s secretive behavior. Beyond Anita there’s Niska, another fully sentient Synth who is forced to work in a brothel. Niska snaps when a customer asks her to acts like a little girl and simulate rape. We also see that while some Synths are seen as no more than computers or toasters, they are still harassed and even beaten by humans. The show continues to ask (and answer) the questions that Ex Machina poses. Through Anita, Niska and other Synths, we see humans acting out some of the worse parts of themselves because this society has allowed them to do so by creating a class of “people” that aren’t human. It’s telling that the violence that is acted on female Synths is still largely sexualized and Niska drives home this point to the brothel madam when she tells her “everything [the men] do to us, they want to do to you”. With many parallels to both gender and race, Humans is tackling what it means to live on both sides of a society where people have the freedom to treat another group of people as lesser than without impunity. Aptly, there is one character who is seen as a zealot by his peers because he recognizes the danger of the position humans have cornered themselves into by creating and abusing the very beings they’ve let into their lives. Niska represents that vengeful spirit fighting for control of her own body in a society she doesn’t trust while Anita is caught between her programming that moves her to help the family she works for while still rebelling in the small ways she can against them.

Similar to the dystopian future phenomena in YA literature, this exploration of artificial intelligence as framed through the lens of female bodies becomes a larger allegory for what women today are fighting for. We are pushing back against a society that tries to force us to nurture its desires at the expense of being our full, sentient selves. Furthermore, these stories shine a stark light on a society that defines its humanity by how well it is able to control those it considers to be lesser.