Self-Aware

exMachina

What obligation do we have to our creations?

In the film Ex Machina, the character Nathan, designer of an apparently fully conscious artificial intelligence, is shown through the story to be abusive to his creations, a tyrant, a monster. He is willing to murder and abuse his ‘children’ without remorse. And how subtly he must have shifted, from software engineer, to hardware developer, to father, without ever knowing where the line between each was, without ever becoming aware of when his pragmatic approach to development became an abusive approach to fatherhood, when he stopped treating objects like people and started treating people like objects. What does it mean to be a software developer when every revision and every rollback is intrusive, a lobotomy? When does it turn from maintenance and upgrades into surgery?

It may be many years, or it may never be, that we create a thinking machine – but, perhaps, long before that point we will find ourselves as abusers, violating our never-understood obligations to what we create. How do we know that we aren’t already?

What about characters? Characters are a kind of artificial intelligence, a mind emulated through the mind of a writer, or simulated in fragments by an audience, layered through multiple interpretations, projected in quantum superposition through the mind of a crowd. Is it really okay to do whatever we want with them, to make them suffer or die, all for the purpose of parable? Does it start off as okay when we write it, but become more unethical as our audience grows, as the simulated intelligence of the character becomes more robust and runs on more client minds, becomes more independent of its creator?

As customers clamor to declare creators are obligated to them, and as creators defensively affirm their obligations to themselves, it’s perhaps worth wondering if the creator has an obligation to the creation, itself – aside from any agency or perceived agency on part of the creation, is it important to respect what we create, to treat it with dignity?

There may be no answer to these questions. This may be a paradox, created from a superstitious belief in something called ‘consciousness’, separated from the universe of objects and machines by a cloudy barrier.

Well, whatever. Whether or not there’s a self to be aware of, we have created the concept of self-awareness. Regardless of whether we are separate from the world in our perception, we are certainly separate from it in our capacity for targeted creation. And, whether or not the things we create ever become like us, in some ineffable way, whether they become the artificial children we’ve always wanted, to live vicariously through, to shore up or manifold imperfections – no matter what we make, it is an extension of us, and when we share it it becomes an extension of others as well. We are all connected, even weird loners like us, like me.

So be kind.

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2 comments
  1. Excellent review. All the best science-fiction films have that layer of creepiness to them – this one has it in spades. The many questions it poses prompt endless discussion. Loved, loved, loved it!

    • Oh, I didn’t intend a review so much as a philosophical exploration inspired by the film, but it is a real good movie for sure.

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