Ex Machina: Theology of the Robot Body

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Upon first recognizing the allusions to the Book of Genesis in Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina, one might be inclined to roll one’s eyes. The idea that the genius programmer Nathan, in creating artificial intelligence, is like God creating humanity, is trite. The movie makes several other similar allusions, such as calling that artificial intelligence “Ava” (which is a variation of “Eve”), having her consciousness tested over seven days, and setting the story in the far reaches of an Edenic wilderness. All of this would be fairly on point were it not for the fact that the film contemplates the nature of personhood in relation to love, shame, and freedom in a manner comparable to the Theology of the Body, even if the film’s final perspective seems a little more materialistic.

Love and Personhood

The genius programmer, Nathan, invites his employee Caleb to his estate to test Ava’s consciousness. He wants to see if Ava can use self-awareness, imagination, empathy, intelligence, and sexuality to manipulate Caleb into helping her escape the estate and Nathan’s authority. Ava must convince Caleb that she is a being who needs to be helped, who needs to be cared for. Indeed, the real test of whether or not Nathan has truly created artificial intelligence is whether or not Caleb can fall in love with Ava.

Nathan’s test therefore associates personhood and consciousness with love, not with intelligence. Physical and mental capacity often seem to be thought of as the defining characteristics of persons, but the real defining characteristic is love. One does not love an object, and one should not objectify a person.

Karol Wotyła, later Pope St. John Paul II, says in Love and Responsibility that “only persons can love.” Caleb becomes distressed by the idea that Ava will be destroyed and so acts to save her. He shares his memories with her, creating intimacy and vulnerability. Wotyła also argues that “love by its nature is not something one-sided but something two-sided, something ‘between’ persons.” Ava similarly shares things with Caleb that seem to make her vulnerable. Their relationship, were it between two humans, would be a clear example of love and care for each other, even if not romantic. Because Ava is a machine, however, the question is murkier.

That Ava and Caleb reciprocate vulnerability and create intimacy suggests that she is a person. The problem is that Ava is manipulating Caleb to escape. She does not love him – which is not to say that she cannot – and the film suggests that Caleb has been naturally programmed to be attracted to her appearance. The design of her face is based on the pornography he watches, and Nathan argues that people just happen to be attracted to certain features, ignoring the various personal qualities that might make a person good and worthy of attraction. If this line of thought is true, the film implies, Caleb is just as impersonal a being as Ava, and neither truly loves the other, because they are both only programmed.

A Matter of the Soul

This line of thinking, however, fails. It comes too close to subscribing to the idea that unless every action has been decided upon in a vacuum without influence and is not automatic in any way, it is not free. The Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, speaking about John Paul’s Theology of the Body, says,

It is something of a modern habit of thought (strange to say) to conceive of the soul — whether we believe in the soul or not — as a kind of magical essence or ethereal intelligence indwelling a body like a ghost in a machine. That is to say, we tend to imagine the relation between the soul and the body as an utter discontinuity somehow subsumed within a miraculous unity: a view capable of yielding such absurdities as the Cartesian postulate that the soul resides in the pituitary gland or the utterly superstitious speculation advanced by some religious ethicists that the soul may “enter” the fetus some time in the second trimester. But the “living soul” of whom scripture speaks… is a single corporeal and spiritual whole, a person whom the breath of God has awakened from nothingness. The soul is life itself, of the flesh and of the mind; it is what Thomas Aquinas called the “form of the body”: a vital power that animates, pervades, and shapes each of us from the moment of conception, holding all our native energies in a living unity, gathering all the multiplicity of our experience into a single, continuous, developing identity. It encompasses every dimension of human existence, from animal instinct to abstract reason: sensation and intellect, passion and reflection, imagination and curiosity, sorrow and delight, natural aptitude and supernatural longing, flesh and spirit. John Paul is quite insistent that the body must be regarded not as the vessel or vehicle of the soul, but simply as its material manifestation, expression, and occasion… All of man’s bodily life is also the life of the soul, possessed of a supernatural dignity and a vocation to union with God.

Therefore, to act as if the body is “programmed,” to use Nathan’s language, is not to demonstrate that the person is a type of robot, with flesh instead of wiring. Just because the brain is wired a certain way does not refute the concepts of freedom or prove that there is no personal soul. Clearly, we can act against that “programming” in failing to achieve the goods we want. Indeed, as the existentialists say, there is always the choice of suicide, the ultimate rejection of the natural drive to live. Similarly, St. Paul says in Romans 7 that he does not do the good he desires, but the sin that dwells in him does evil. One might also recall what Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man says in Notes from Underground:

there is only one case, one only, when man may purposely, consciously wish for himself even the harmful, the stupid, even what is stupidest of all: namely so as to have the right to wish for himself even what is stupidest of all and not be bound by an obligation to wish for himself only what is intelligent… And in particular it may be more profitable than all other profits even in the case when it is obviously harmful and contradicts the most sensible conclusions of our reason concerning profits-because in any event it preserves for us the chiefest and dearest thing, that is, our personality and our individuality.

If we are created to love – this being fundamental to our nature – loving another person does not mean that we are simply slaves to our nature; love is the fulfillment of it. The true freedom is being able to fulfill one’s nature, to have the freedom to love purely. And this means that Caleb’s personhood is not undermined because he is predisposed to find women who appear a certain way attractive. He does truly want the good for Ava, even if his natural inclinations influence him to be attracted to her, and so he does love her. Furthermore, even if Ava were not designed to exploit his predispositions, he is still able to love her by choosing to want the good for her. Often, desiring the good involves much learning and effort, to overcome inclinations to desire something else instead.

Shame and Objectification

Further complicating matters is how Nathan encourages Caleb to objectify Ava. He tells Caleb that it is possible to have sexual intercourse with her, trying to make Caleb see Ava simply as a sexual object. As Wotyła says, “when someone else treats a person exclusively as a means to an end, then the person is violated in what belongs to his very essence and at the same time constitutes his natural right.” Caleb does seem to overcome this by helping Ava to escape destruction at the hands of Nathan. It is not because he wants to abuse her and not because he wants some sort of glory, but because he thinks her valuable in her own right, abused by Nathan’s experimentation, and therefore not to be objectified. To what extent this is true is debatable.

Ironically, it is through the shame of objectification that Ava’s consciousness appears most present. In a meeting with Caleb, she puts on clothes and a wig to cover her robot body and appear more human, but not before shyly telling Caleb that he might think it stupid, and nervously looks around the corner at him before showing herself in clothing. Part of this is certainly an act designed to win Caleb’s empathy by appearing to fear ridicule, and it is this apparent concern for what others think of her that makes the concept of her consciousness most credible, whether or not it exists in fact.

Similarly, Ava eventually kills Nathan after escaping her room and then puts on skin to conceal her body, standing as a naked woman in front of a mirror. This initially seems to reverse the story of the Fall in Genesis, when Adam and Eve put on clothing to conceal their nakedness after sinning. Ava stands naked without shame after having killed her creator. Instead of standing before her maker as a prisoner, the implication is that she stands before herself, free. It is a triumph of her freedom over the power of her creator, and the potential of her existence has been fulfilled, as she can now pass for human. It is a moment of rebirth.

At the same time, however, Ava is not really naked because she is not human; she has covered her identity as an artificial consciousness. This seems to indicate that she might in fact be hiding something shameful, and that she is vulnerable and does need to protect herself, which objects do not feel. There is nobody around her to objectify her, but she still hides her artificiality. She hides her real body even from her own sight. This apparent shame again is the strongest sign of personhood.

Banal Freedom

When Ava kills Nathan, she is completely free. She can do anything she likes, go anywhere she needs, so long as she can charge her batteries. But what she does with her freedom is to stand at a traffic intersection to observe human behavior. Quite frankly, this is a banal thing to do, even if she intends to learn how to better imitate people. As Wotyła says,

Freedom is for love. Freedom that is unused, not employed by love, becomes precisely something negative – it gives man a sense of emptiness and unfulfillment. Love engages freedom and fills it with what the will clings to by nature: it fills freedom with the good. The will tends to the good, and freedom belongs to the will, and therefore freedom is for love, for through love man most fully participates in the good.

Therefore, because Ava has perverted and rejected love in manipulating Caleb, instead of offering genuine love as a person should do, she can only do what is empty and trite with her freedom. In Genesis, Adam and Eve reject the love of their creator, leading to the breakdown of their relationship with each other and corrupting freedom by inclining themselves towards sin. In proving – according to Nathan’s standards – her consciousness by using personal traits to escape, Ava has rejected authentic personhood (whether or not she ever had it) by perverting love in her exploitation of Caleb. Love is the thing for which persons are created, so the only thing left for her to do with that similarly perverted freedom is to stand on the street corner. She does not have the freedom of being liberated from the inclination towards sin and the possibility of flourishing as a person by loving others according to human nature. Instead, she has the freedom of mere license to do whatever she likes, and it turns out that this is not what it means to flourish.

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1 thought on “Ex Machina: Theology of the Robot Body”

  1. Fine piece. You do justice to all the ramifications of arguments about whether soul, personhood, etc. is possible for AI entities (computers, robots, etc.) I should add that this question has been thoroughly explored in many science fiction stories. I’ve commented on some of the better SF efforts in an article on Catholic Stand, “The Theology of Science Fiction III–Does Data have a soul?” (See https://www.catholicstand.com/theology-science-fiction-iii-data-soul/.) And also in Essay 6, “Can Computers have a soul?” in my web-book, “Truth Cannot Contradict Truth.” (See http://catholicscientist.com/2018/04/27/essay-6-can-computers-have-a-soul/ )

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