Ex Machina, the first film screened in this year’s “Without Limits: Interdisciplinary Conversations in the Liberal Arts” series, answers the question of what can happen when computer programmers lack sufficient training in the methods of critical inquiry central to the study of the humanities and social sciences.
The answer: very bad things.
The Nov. 13 screening offered a suspenseful and entertaining introduction to this year’s series theme “March of the Machines: Artificial Intelligence, Interactivity and Automation in the Digital Age.”
Jed Mayer, an associate professor of English, facilitated the discussion of the film, which features a beautiful and surprisingly human android named Ava.
Ava is subjected to the Turing Test for artificial intelligence by her creator, Nathan, and programmer Caleb. Caleb is taken, under false pretenses, to the isolated compound where Ava is held and quickly falls in love with her.
In the end, Ava turns the tables on her captors and stages an escape after killing Nathan and sealing Caleb inside the compound.
Mayer asked the audience, which included faculty, community members and students, to consider the ways in which Ava is objectified and cruelly treated by her male captors and to ponder whether the film’s violence serves a meaningful purpose.
In the film’s approach to defining what it means to be human, Mayer found echoes in the use of animals for scientific experiments, victims of the Third Reich and asylum seekers in the U.S.
“Marking someone as other is a privilege accorded to those in power, and it has been used for centuries, often with the support of philosophers who deem this or that quality to be uniquely human, and hence exclusive to a privileged class,” Mayer said.
In the film, Ava’s otherness justifies her treatment as a slave, and her final triumph represented, for Mayer, “a powerfully feminist statement on the sexist assumptions that shape the paths taken by artificial intelligence development.”
In the spring, Without Limits programming will continue to draw on the themes of AI, interactivity and automation with a diverse lineup of programming.
- Stephen DiDomenico, an assistant professor of communication, will facilitate a screening of the Spike Jonze film, Her. The film explores how a lonely, introverted man, played by Joaquin Phoenix, finds love and connection with an operating system named Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.
- Virginia Eubanks, an associate professor of political science at SUNY Albany, will give a talk on her book, Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. Eubanks has worked in community technology and economic justice movements for two decades and was a founding member of the Our Data Bodies Project.
- Finally, a faculty panel will explore the “March of the Machines” from the perspectives of their disciplines. DiDomenico will speak on “Talk, Embodiment, and Technology: Taking a ‘Doing’ Perspective on Mobile Phones in Everyday Life.” The talk presents findings from an ongoing research collaboration on mobile phone use in ordinary conversation. Rebecca Longtin, an assistant professor of philosophy, will speak about the “Possibilities and Puzzles of ‘Human’-Level AI,” and will draw from fictional depictions of human-level AI portrayed in the series films Her and Ex Machina, as well as real world innovations like Google’s DeepMind. Finally, Gowri Parameswaran, a professor of educational studies and leadership and affiliate of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department, will discuss “Fear and Loathing on Social Media.” Parameswaran will touch on digital media echo chambers, hate speech on social media and fake news.
For more information on Without Limits, visit the series website.