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While watching Ex Machina it occurred to me that the robots could be replaced with human slaves and the plot lines could be essentially unchanged.

Here are some of the examples for the parallels:

  • There was a popular theory that slaves weren't fully human and in addition they couldn't feel emotion like their masters. There were even some scientific garbage investigations into the validity of this claim. That seems very similar to the Turing test given to Ava (in essence).
  • Slave owners felt no compunction about killing, disfiguring, torturing, imprisoning, toying with, degrading, etc. their slaves. Nathan similarly saw no problem with the things he did to the robots.
  • Caleb's story arc can be viewed as someone who initially supported slavery (of Ava) to one who wanted to free a slave he begun to sympathize with. Even this arc was inline with Southern slavery where the master can have his "favorite" slave, but be indifferent to other slaves since Caleb never showed interest in saving the other active robot, not to mention the deactivated robots.

Was the intent to draw parallels so that people would question how we talk about AI based on how we talked about slaves in the past? Similarly was this film designed with the political agenda of encouraging people to give AI human rights? Regardless of the intent I'm pretty sure this film will be cited as a case for AI rights if the issue ever becomes relevant.


I can add more examples if people feel it would be helpful.

  • Considering the word "robot" was coined in the 20s purportedly from a Czech word for servitude, along with their obvious tool nature in both fact and fiction, I would guess that "yes" the parallels are quite intentional. As a manifesto? I wonder. – Yorik Nov 19 '15 at 17:33
  • @Yorik interesting. I never knew the linkage between the word "robot" and "servitude." Now I wonder if I should replace "robot" with "android." Hmm..... – Erik Nov 19 '15 at 17:38
  • Well, The book (or play? can't remember) was "RUR" [edit: RUS is a rodent of Unusual Size--sry] circa 1920. The usual word "android" was replaced pretty rapidly by the word "robot" after this came out, possibly because of the slavery implication. Interestingly, the "robots" were more along the lines of the Androids (Replicants) in "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" (aka Blade Runner). I know most of this from the preface to an Asimov "I Robot" compilation. – Yorik Nov 19 '15 at 17:41
  • "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" is an extraordinarily interesting book. I've read it three times over three decades and continue to pick up subtleties. A must read for anyone interested the issue that you raise. – DukeZhou Aug 20 '16 at 23:23
  • How else would you describe sentient beings who are considered property by those who have power over them, who have no choice but to serve at the whims of their owners with no hope of self-determination? – Shadur Jun 13 '18 at 7:12
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According to this interview with Alex Garland, he was certainly conscious of the obvious overtones of black slavery, but the bigger emphasis was on the role of women in society. The film is also unashamedly about the wider ethics of treating machines as machines and the complexity of having a strong artificial intelligence in reality:

UTG: Do you think that it will play differently for American audiences compared to a British audience? We tend to look at issues of gender and race seriously.

Garland: Not where gender is concerned, I think that would play similarly. The short answer is: I don’t know. I think not where gender is concerned. Issues around feminism are very current. I think that is broadly true from both sides of the Atlantic. I’m not American, so that assumption is kind of difficult for me to ascertain. Where race is concerned, that is possible because of the explicitly different history in both countries. There’s a similar history and then there’s a divergent point where the two separate before reconnecting. I’m talking about slavery, where Britain was involved in but abandoned earlier on. It doesn’t have quite the same currency, that particular racial issue, as it does in the UK. When Nathan [Isaac] appears that he might be being racist to [Gleeson's character], to the point where he can bristle and react, that is one character aimed at another character. It is also slightly aimed at the audience. I’ve been in screenings where there has been quite a bit of laughter up until that certain point [a dialogue scene between Nathan and Caleb that takes a serious turn]. The second he starts talking about “black chicks,” the room goes silent. That was calculated. If you calculate to do something like that, you are putting it there to provoke some sort of conversation. I had to emphasize to the best of my ability that I was being thoughtful. That if you are going to do that [have tonal shifts], that you don’t do it in a glib way or in a way that would stand out.

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