Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 28, 2021

Professors question consciousness and intelligence at screening of Ex Machina

By SHIVNI PATEL | October 17, 2019


We live in a world where technology has already greatly permeated our lives. In the world of Ex Machina, a 2014 film directed by Alex Garland, technology has extended far beyond smartphones and wearables and has reached a new zenith. In Ex Machina, a machine that seems to mirror the things that make us human is no longer a distant possibility but a reality. 

Upon seeing this world, questions arise. How far are we today from the world of Ex Machina? How does the rise of artificial intelligence change our perceptions of what it means to be human? As humans we are consciously aware of our existence. Can a machine be similarly conscious of itself?

Those were questions that permeated the air on Oct. 9 at the Parkway Theatre, as the film Ex Machina was screened for one night as part of the “Futures (Un)known: Science and Film” series. Veit Stuphorn of the Mind/Brain Institute at Hopkins and Gregory Hager, Mandell Bellmore Professor of Computer Science and director of the Computational Interaction and Robotics Laboratory at Hopkins were the two featured panelists of the evening.

The film Ex Machina tells a story focused on three characters. A rich prodigious inventor Nathan invites Caleb, an employee at his company, to his private manor to test his newest project: a female artificial-intelligence (AI) robot named Ava. Ava is capable of mimicking human emotions, holding human conversations, and operating at a high complexity. 

In the movie, Ava is the most advanced AI of her time. Ava fools both the audience and Caleb as she progresses from being a seemingly innocent AI who feels trapped in a prison by her wicked maker to a devious antagonist who ultimately manipulates Caleb, her sympathizer, by trapping him in the estate while she escapes.

In the introductory remarks to the film, both Hager and Stuphorn presented perspectives from their respective fields on the concepts of consciousness and this year’s Common Question for incoming students: What is intelligence? 

From the perspective of computer science, Hager presented background on the tests used on machines to determine whether they can exhibit intelligence akin to that of a human. Hager first discussed the background behind the Turing test, which was named after its founder, English computer scientist Alan Turing. Hager explained that Turing had been working with the early generations of computers and had considered the possibility that these machines would eventually come to be like humans. 

“Turing aimed to test the idea that artificial intelligence could fool a person into thinking that it is a human,” he said.

Hager explained the process of the Turing test, which requires three “players.” The first player, Player A, is a man. The second player, Player B, is a woman. The third player, Player C, is of either gender. Player C cannot see either Players A or B and can only interact with them through written notes. Player C can ask questions to the players to determine the genders of each. Player B must try to help Player C in making the right decision, while Player A tries to manipulate Player C into making the wrong one.

In the next stage, the computer takes the place of Player A, and the same process repeats. If the computer can make Player C choose wrongly just as often as when the human took the role of Player A, then the Turing test is passed, and there is proof of artificial intelligence.

However, Hager implored audience members to think beyond the Turing test when viewing the film.

“As you watch the movie, I invite you to think about the forms of intelligence that may not be the types of intelligence that Turing would have talked about,” Hager said. 

Following Hager, Stuphorn presented his perspective on the subjects of intelligence and consciousness. He began by framing his introductory remarks around a central question: Who has consciousness?

Stuphorn talked about his own version of a test for consciousness, grounded in neuroscience. 

“This is my rough Turing test: I would make a decision based on the assessment of how similar the subject is to me,” Stuphorn said.

“Is an insect conscious? It seems very much automatic in its behavior, so I would say no. A chimpanzee most likely has consciousness because it is the most similar animal to us that we can find on the planet.” 

Stuphorn stressed that the results of this test for consciousness present real-life consequences, including ethical implications of human actions, such as animal testing in research.

“We are doing stuff to mice that we would not do to a chimp,” he said.

Stuphorn continued to delve further into detail on research findings on the neural basis of consciousness. According to Stuphorn, experiments using functional magnetic resonance imaging have shown brain activity in human subjects who are consciously aware of the sound that was played. However, when the same sound was played and a subject reported that they did not hear anything, there was still activity in the auditory cortex. Stuphorn explained the significance of these results to consciousness.

“There is also activity in the brain, even when you are not consciously aware of the signals,” Stuphorn said.

Although a great deal of research is being conducted on the neural basis of consciousness, Stuphorn believes there are still questions that remain unresolved. 

“Neuroscience does not yet understand why certain brain activity is associated with consciousness or not,” Stuphorn said. 

A question and answer session followed the film, in which panelists and audience members shared their thoughts on the movie, and the film’s relations to the questions regarding the definitions of intelligence and consciousness. 

Senior Kenz Wilkinson explained that she benefited from the panel discussions before and after the screening. 

“Personally, I did not know what the Turing test was before the film, so they definitely primed me for that before the film, and the discussion afterwards was also very helpful,” Wilkinson said in an interview with The News-Letter.

Sarah Rauscher from the Maryland Film Festival appreciated the ability to make connections between the material presented by the panelists to the film itself.

“It was interesting how one of the panelists went for the AI side of things, and one went for the biological side of things, while this film’s character obviously went for both at the same time,” Rauscher said in an interview with The News-Letter.

Hager continued the conversation on the different faces of intelligence during the question and answer session. He talked about the different types of intelligence that can be exhibited by an AI, and discussed how those different types of intelligence relate to the character Ava in Ex Machina

Hager commented on the present-day feasibility of producing an AI capable of exhibiting the multiple different types of intelligence.

“If you look at the Turing test again, it’s a very intelligence-in-a-box notion. In the field right now, it’s not very clear to me how we can work with these different types of intelligence,” Hager said.

In an interview with The News-Letter, senior Maggie Wattaca commented on the relevance of the film and its genre to present-day society.

“This film is very socially relevant, and I’ve noticed films about technology are definitely becoming more popular these days,” Wattaca said. 

When asked about the possibility of technological advancements in arenas such as artificial intelligence dehumanizing mankind, Stuphorn expressed his thoughts on how an AI would manifest in society, and its consequences.

“If you actually create an artificial person, this person I think would be very much like us,” said Stuphorn. “It would want to be free. It would be pretty useless too, to create an artificial person that is too humanoid. What would you do with that?”

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