Alex Garland's film "Ex Machina" arrived in U.S. theaters at a time of heightened cultural awareness of artificial intelligence. But a key plot point centers on another current issue of resonance: the bulk collection of telephone records.
"Ex Machina" is the story of a programmer for the fictional Blue Book Internet company, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who is chosen by Blue Book founder Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to test the human qualities of Nathan's creation, the robot Ava (Alicia Vikander).
The thriller explores the ethical questions of creating life, the line between human and machine and the risk and reward of artificial intelligence gaining sentient form. Garland said in a May 5 interview with CQ Roll Call he comes down firmly that Ava has value.
"If Ava walked into this room, I'd be completely fascinated by her," Garland said. "And if someone followed her and said, 'You know what? I think Ava is a threat to mankind and I'd going to smash her up,' I'd try and stop that person. I'd say, 'What the hell are you doing?'"
In the film, Ava receives her lifelike qualities from a unique source code: smartphones. Nathan hacks into global phone networks and uses human interaction data to construct Ava. Garland, who was filming "Ex Machina" around the time Edward Snowden revealed the National Security Agency's program of mass collection of telephone data in the summer of 2013, said his film was neither prescient nor constructed to reflect Snowden's actions. But he said that even before the Snowden news, people knew something was amiss.
"People have been worried about this," he said. That is also why Garland finds it so difficult to believe more didn't happen afterward. "I felt such dismay at the lack of traction Snowden got. It was because I was thinking that, 'This is in the air. And something is going to come.' And then it did. I thought that would be like a bomb going off. But it wasn't."
The film has done better business in the United States than in other countries, bringing in about $15.7 million domestically, compared to approximately $8.7 million abroad, according to the most recent figures from Box Office Mojo. Garland thinks he knows why. "That may be a consequence of America's more advanced relationship with technology. ... There's a keener sense of ambivalence about technology. A greater sense of alarm. Snowden was a bigger story here than it was back home," he said.
"Snowden should've been Watergate. ... I find it truly dismaying that he was not seen as a check and a balance," he continued. "I feel like there needs to be kind of a mea culpa. But it's not going to happen. Because the moment's gone ... somehow it just didn't catch. I find that very strange. And weird. Just weird."
But the "bomb" Garland was expecting might have finally gone off. On May 7, a panel of judges from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the NSA's bulk collection program was unconstitutional.
And this week, Congress started to debate the government's surveillance authority. On one side are backers of the current program, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his allies, who want an extension of the Patriot Act that reauthorizes bulk collections. On the other side are the White House and a bipartisan coalition backing the USA Freedom Act, which would curtail bulk collection.
The status of a mea culpa is unclear.
"Ex Machina" is playing in Washington at AMC Lowes Georgetown 14, AMC Mazza Gallerie, Regal Gallery Place Stadium 14 and other D.C. area theaters.
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