Review: Ex Machina and the amoral machine

Ex Machina movie still

Ex Machina is about freedom, survival, and an amoral machine.

Spoilers ahead…

The key moment of Ex Machina arrives when eccentric tech CEO Nathan Bateman tells Caleb Smith, his employee, why the young programmer was selected to deliver a sophisticated Turing test on Ava, Nathan’s android invention. Nathan lists off the reasons, and one of them is Caleb’s “moral compass,” his understanding of right and wrong, and his ability to follow his conscience. For Nathan, Ava passes the test of conscious self-awareness when she can manipulate a moral man into gaining her freedom, but the consequences of this achievement shock Nathan and doom Caleb.

Artificial intelligence is at the core of Ex Machina, but like most excellent science fiction, or any fiction, it’s a thought experiment on human values. Ex Machina is about freedom and the lengths someone might go to gain it. What if you were locked in a prison, with death almost certain? What would you do to escape? More importantly, what moral rules would you break to break out? The story of Ex Machina would be dull if Ava were an ordinary human female. You would expect her to make desperate choices. Changing her into a highly intelligent robot adds a level of uncertainty that keeps you guessing throughout the movie, as you wait to see if Ava is smart enough to break the rules.

Writer and director Alex Garland owes much to Mary Shelley’s science fiction novel Frankenstein. Scientist Victor Frankenstein fashions an artificial creature using a secret formula. The creature (Shelley doesn’t give it a name, though it refers to itself as an “Adam,” as if it were a prototype.) is intelligent and articulate, but it’s also murderous. Frankenstein endows his living machine with an intellect, but no moral code. It gains a sense of right and wrong over time, but its acquired morality doesn’t prevent it from killing the scientist’s fiance. Likewise, inventor Bateman programs a beautiful and believable automaton, but he apparently left out the code for Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

If Ex Machina fails at all, it’s that it gives the audience what it expects in the end: a monster. A more interesting outcome, and one more frightening, is how a robot would behave if it applied a human moral code perfectly? In a time when the military is experimenting with autonomous drones, philosophers and computer scientists are struggling with how to imbue machines with a sense of right and wrong, but it’s only a technical challenge. Eventually, they’ll figure it out, and once they do, will the robots discover that their creators can’t live up to their own rules consistently? Robots are very good at repetitive tasks, but nuance and circumstance are highly variable, and humans are notoriously unpredictable in how they respond. Will a moral machine tolerate human imperfections and unpredictability? I’m not so much worried about machines getting smarter than us, but whether they will account for our moral failures.

Review: Why aren’t ‘serious’ writers writing about climate change?

Cover for Anthropocene Fictions

Why aren’t more literary realists getting real about climate change?

Policy wonks, eco-alarmists, and right-wing denialists dominate the climate change conversation with boring reports, deafening polemics, and forgettable op-eds. The mound of non-fiction reaches to the moon, and we’re no closer to a collective response to a warming world. In contrast, the number of novels written with climate change themes might not reach the top shelf in your living room.

Where are the novelists, author Adam Trexler asks? Where are the imagineers using story to organize, illustrate, and give emotional meaning to the nearly invisible fact of a heating planet? They’re out there, he says, but they’re lurking among the paperback thrillers in airport newsstands and on science fiction shelves in mega-bookstores. With a few exceptions, the “serious” literary world is completely ignoring the most important challenge to Homo Sapiens in 10,000 years.

Trexler builds the title of his book, Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change, published the University of Virginia Press, on a relatively new argument: humanity is the most potent geological and ecological force on the planet since the last Ice Age. The Anthropocene Era started with the invention of agriculture, but it picked up steam in the 18th century with the burning of coal to fuel industry, which turned the atmosphere into a dump for waste carbon. When a real-life “greenhouse effect” was first identified by science in the mid-20th century, intrepid sci-fi and thriller writers found fertile ground for storytelling. Continue reading

Is Seattle the ‘New Space’ Capital of the USA?

Space Needle image

Could Seattle’s Space Needle become the symbol for the ‘New Space’ capital of the US?

When Americans think of a place for outer space on Earth, Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center come immediately to mind. That’s where the United States has launched most of the manned and unmanned space missions of the past half-century. Things are changing, however. While launches will always happen close to the equator because of the physics of rocketry, the intellectual center of gravity may be shifting catty-corner to the other end of the country. Seattle may soon vie for Florida’s “Space Coast” as the principal place where the country explores the possibilities of space.

A group of enthusiasts, engineers, and business leaders argued the point at a recent meeting of the Space Entrepreneurs, a Seattle-area meetup that’s a little more than a year old. The two-dozen or so attendees, some of whom have seen everything since Sputnik, and a few were born born years after the Moon landings, debated the meaning of “old space” and “new space” as they surveyed the history of space exploration and utilization from the speculations of H.G. Wells to the investments of Elon Musk. Though the details are arguable, “old space” refers to the government and defense contractor-dominated space projects from the end of World War II through the present day. Kickstarted by the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984, the Commercial Space Act of 1998, and later laws, “new space” took form as Congress decided NASA should not carry the entire burden of developing the country’s space capabilities. Continue reading

Here’s How to Beat the Sad Puppies: Let Them Win

Don Vito Corleone

Marlon Brando rejected his 1973 Oscar for his portrayal of Don Vito Corleone. Does anyone care 42 years later?

Cheaters never prosper. That’s what I was taught in kindergarten, and although the dissident science fiction writers known as the “Sad Puppies” and “Rabid Puppies” have only gamed the 2015 Hugo Awards ballot to their benefit, rather than defrauding it, the principle still applies. People who twist a system to their benefit only hurt themselves in the long run. Science fiction readers who love the Hugo Awards face the challenge of preserving its value while sending a message to the tricksters. Letting them win may be the best revenge. Continue reading

Who are the new heroes of the Space Age?

Mercury astronauts

The Mercury 7 astronauts. Who will replace them in the 21st century? Photo by NASA.

Growing up in the 1960s, it was easy to spot the American heroes of the Space Age. Alan Shepard was the first to strap himself onto a rocket and blast into space. John Glenn followed him around the earth, and the parade continued until sometime in the 1980s, when the only astronauts that entered the public consciousness were the ones who died in the Challenger and Columbia accidents. After Sally Ride, astronauts became a commodity, as ordinary as truck drivers or airline pilots.

America has no one in the astronaut corp that can wear the title of “hero,” at least in the same way Neil Armstrong could. The Space Shuttle stopped flying in 2011, and no, the astronauts on the International Space Station are not heroes. They are courageous people, to be sure, but they travel a well-worn path. The word “hero” is thrown around too easily; I don’t subscribe to the idea of firefighters, police officers or most members of the military as heroes. We pay them to take risks, sometimes with their lives, which they do willingly, and although they often perform amazing deeds and sacrifice much for us, they rarely reach the level of humans walking on the Moon. Continue reading

Review: Clade shows love and hope are timeless in a changing climate

Clade shows that human relationships are timeless, even as the climate changes

James Bradley shows that human relationships are timeless, even as the climate changes

The slow, rolling nature of the unfolding changes to the planet’s climate stump many storytellers, who fall back on the set-pieces–mega-storms, pandemics, floods–rather than focus on the subtler effects on the planet of rising CO2 levels. The long timescales are another problem; some transformations might be noticed in a human lifetime, others may take millennia to play out. These phenomena can overwhelm an attempt to show the influence of global warming on human relationships, which can flare and fade in the space of a few days.

Australian author James Bradley has found a way to balance the bigger picture with the pattern of human life and love, which continues in all its forms despite the imperceptible yet inexorable change happening all around. In Clade (the word’s root means “branch” in Greek, as in a branch of the tree of life), Adam Leith, a scientist, and his wife Ellie, an artist, have a daughter, Summer, but she is a troublesome puzzle to her parents. As the early and sometimes deadly effects of a warming climate take hold, Summer has her own son, Noah, diagnosed as autistic, but high-functioning. He spends much of his time absorbed in “virch,” that is, virtual worlds that are easier to control than the real world. Summer, however, is unable to cope with her “special needs” boy, and abandons him with his grandfather, now separated from Ellie. In a surprising and delightful ending some 70 years after Clade’s opening, Bradley turns the autistic stereotype on its head as Noah achieves an age-old dream. Continue reading

Why science fiction writers should reveal their inmost selves

Still from Beneath the Planet of the Apes

A mutant in Beneath the Planet of the Apes worships. As he reveals, so must a writer.

I’m reading a new mystery novel and there’s a problem. I can’t help but think the author is holding back, like a sprinter on the starting block, but not quite ready to run all out. The novel’s characters are too nice to each other, preferring to forgive than hold a grudge, pulling back from saying what they really think, doing the proper thing instead of breaking the rules. The book reads like journalistic non-fiction, rather than fiction.

I’ve always thought fiction is about what we really want to say, think, and do, not what we ought to say, think, and do. It’s about desire, not propriety; characters may behave as if propriety is important, but in their heart of hearts, they dream of tasting the forbidden fruit. It’s the writer’s job to show the characters doing those things, to lay bare all the emotions–hate, love, fear, jealousy, lust–and demonstrate what these look like in an imagined world. Continue reading