Saturday, April 11, 2015

a disease of machinery

Well, they may have been robots.
I mean, I think they were robots.
I mean, I know they were robots.

I was at the theater today to see Ex Machina and there's a moment that got me thinking... Well, there were a lot of moments that got me thinking, but there was one in particular I thought was worth sharing here. Nathan (Oscar Isaac) asks Caleb (Domhnall Gleason) why his type is his type; that is, did he look at all the various types of women, analyze them in detail, measure them, evaluate them and decide on one type, or did his type come from a genetic predilection, or a particular specificity of idealization supported and maintained by his parents, his friends, society in general around him? Actually, most of that phrasing is mine. But, the point is the same. Not to get back into the free will discussion, but I wonder if once a certain complexity is reached, the actuality and the appearance are indistinguishable. That is to say, if his type comes from such a complex combination of nature and nurture that he cannot catalog it, might he not just term it "choice" and move on? If the robots of Delos, or Ava in Ex Machina are close enough to human, does that mean the robot is advanced or our definition of human is limited? In a world where we are increasingly attached to our technology and the basic premise of a film like Her feels entirely plausible in the present, what difference does it make?

And, that's a convoluted bit a of rambling to say--and I'll reference a non-robot film, The Game--if a complex and complicated series of causative factors lead you to jump off a building, does that mean you didn't choose to jump?

Is choice something like love, a placeholder word to represent a much bigger, much more complicated process?

(And, I wanted to talk about a bit of sexism in Westworld today, but it's hard not to be sidetracked. For the record, I have a problem with the idea in this film that the Black Knight killing a man, a snake striking and biting a man, the gunslinger hunting a man, and the female robot Daphne refusing to be seduced are equivalent markers of computer error. As if murder and refusal to bend to patriarchal fantasy (the man she refuses is roleplaying as king in Medieval World) were even comparable.)

Our lives are increasingly ruled by technology. Whether for good or bad, it is hard to debate the truth of its prevalence. In a speech about cloud computing in my last year of collegiate forensics, my clincher was as follows:

If we can accept clouds and ready access to information as an extension of ourselves, then our minds will be everywhere, no matter where our physical brains are. With cloud computing, our Ideaspace has gotten easier to access, easier to navigate. When the next James Watt makes a discovery, maybe we can make it, too. Every idea is out there for the taking.

A few sentences earlier, I suggested, "Clouds, accessed from our computers, from our tablets, from our phones [was] the next best thing to being cyborgs, with Google right inside our heads." Citing Clark and Chalmers (1998), I was promoting the idea that researching information out of a notebook (or phone) in one's pocket was effectively, and essentially, the same operation as accessing one's memory for that same information. Robot or human with a smartphone--what's the difference? The robots at Delos are anatomically correct, able to eat and drink, to converse, to (attempt to) kill and be killed, to have sex.

There's an interesting juxtaposition in the film, actually; just as Peter tells John, "This place is really fun," just as he is finally buying into the reality of it after being with a robot prostitute, we cut to the maintenance period outside, and the reality is broken. Except, what we see our humans (presumably) acting in concert to retrieve and repair various robots. These Delos employees might as well be robots themselves, and may in fact be. As I mentioned yesterday, when we see the technicians unconscious (or dead, I suppose) in the control room, I don't think it's a coincidence that the scene resembles that of the surface worlds of Delos, with robots deactivated here and there. Dead men, dead robots--they look the same.

It seems a strange place, this blog entry about Westworld, to SPOIL a bit of Ex Machina, but I may do just that in the following paragraph. Just jump on past the image if you don't want to be SPOILED.

The ending of Ex Machina involves a choice by the robot Ava to forego her apparent feelings for the main character, as if she has been pretending all along. If we are invested enough in the story at this point to care that she is pretending, then this brings up a vital detail outside of the reality of the film itself--she is a human actress playing this part, so on some level, whether or not Ava was pretending is irrelevant because Alicia Vikander is pretending. The artificial intelligence is the person we see on screen that does not really exist.

All the robots in Westworld are portrayed by actors, of course. Humans. So, there is an extra level of artifice in the way of the fantasy portrayed at Delos. Humans playing robots playing humans. As Claudia says in Interview with the Vampire, "how avant garde." There's no Turing test, no Voight-Kampff machine that can tell us just how genuine an actor's performance is. We just have to feel it, experience it, and gauge for ourselves how real it is.

It will be the same with artificial intelligence. Hell, it's the same with other people (says my cynical side). You can never be 100% sure of their intentions, their genuine feelings toward you. You just have to take what you can from what they give you and, well, hope.

On final thought on Westworld before I go: in the end, while John has been killed, didn't Peter get a kickass vacation out of his stay at Delos? Just like Michael Douglas' character in The Game. Of course, he wasn't in Roman World when, it looks like, all the robots rebelled together and slaughtered all the guests; the sequence is so brief, it's hard to be sure, but the situation in Western World was not nearly as violent and bloody. Peter should count himself lucky. Don't get me wrong, he should sue the crap out of Delos, but still, he's got a story to tell his grandkids one day (assuming he manages to get a new mate to replace his wife Julie who left him).

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