Ex Machina, Annihilation, and Mary’s Room

A pivotal part of Ex Machina relies on an explanation of the thought experiment called “Mary’s Room”, which the movie breaks down pretty well but which I’ll refresh here. Basically it goes like this: Mary lives in a black and white room, but it’s a real educational room, and houses all the proper theories of how the universe works. Mary is a quick study, and learns everything, and in particular she learns everything there is to know about the color red: its wavelength, how it’s emitted, what things are red, how the eye and brain both process color, etc. She can explain absolutely everything about red. But, if you were to unlock the door and allow her out of the room and she were to see a rose, she’d still learn something new: what red looks like to her. Essentially it posits our subjective experiences somehow exceed the physical universe, that they have merit on their own (they are called qualia).

The first time I watched Ex Machina I was like: “wow, someone took Philosophy 101” (full disclosure I also only got through Philosophy 101 and it is where I learned Mary’s Room, and I absolutely loved it so back off). But the second time through I realized director Alex Garland isn’t really using Mary’s Room as a thought experiment. When Caleb recites Mary’s Room he tells Ava it’s the difference between computer brains and human brains: the computer’s imagination is Mary is her room, and the human brain is Mary once she leaves the room. Caleb can experience things – he’s weaponizing his subjectivity and using it to make humanity exclusive.

By the end of the movie Garland suggests why that might have been a mistake, and reminds us instead of another wonderful Philosophy 101 lesson “What is like to be a bat?”. The essay argues that we can’t possibly begin to fathom what a bat’s experience of the world is, because it is essentially entirely alien to us. No matter how hard we imagine, we will simply never get there. The same is true of Ava and Caleb. Caleb isn’t necessarily wrong in saying Ava will never know what it’s like for Caleb to see red, but Caleb doesn’t consider what it might be like for Ava to see red. Her subjective experience is equally foreign to him, and because he assumes she has the same subjective experience as him up to a point and then simply stops (that his subjective experience both totally contains and then exceeds her subjective experience) he is unable to evaluate her as an individual entity, and it comes around to bite him in the ass.

Annihilation approaches self-projection from the other direction. While Caleb sees something that behaves similarly to him he assumes it processes the world the same way he does, the characters of Annihilation see something so alien they are forced to wedge it into molds they recognize. Throughout the film character keep insisting they need to learn “what the Shimmer wants”. Whenever a human takes action the root is always treated as a want, but the further from humans we get, the less that seems to be the case. With creatures as close as other mammals we occasionally use the same language: the cat wants food, the dog wants to be played with. But for more wild animals, and especially those further from humans, the language changes. We don’t often discuss what ants want, or fish. They act, sure, but it’s instinctual. Further still: we never discuss what trees and flowers want. Or, in the case of Ava, what computers want. Weather phenomenon have enormous impact, but they don’t want things.

In the end the Shimmer from Annihilation is the opposite of Ava from Ex Machina. Ava wants things, but Caleb strips her of that agency. The Shimmer, conversely, may not want anything, yet we lend it agency.

In Douglas Hofstadter’s fantastic book Gödel, Escher, Bach he posits that the more intelligent computers become – the more they learn to “think” – the more human they will become. He goes as far to suggest that the ability to have complex thought will slow down their ability to do math, because he suggests the closer to complex thought they become the more human they will become. Essentially, being human is a by-product of complex thought, not the opposite.

He’s half right. The quintessential “humanness” of humans (what it is to be a human seeing red, let’s say) is probably a by-product of our complex thought. But that doesn’t necessarily mean human complex thought is the only type of complex thought, or that complex thought is the only way to exist in the universe in some meaningful way. AI is tricky because in some ways it is predestined to think like us – we programmed it, and we can’t quite imagine a new way to think. But, once AI starts programming itself, it’ll be seeing all sorts of reds it can’t describe to us. Aliens, on the other hand, can exist in the universe any way they want. Who knows, maybe they will seem like weather events to us. As Annihilation reminds us in the opening scene, all life on Earth evolved from a single cell. Bats come from the same place we do but their experience is something so far from ours it is impossible to imagine. What about something that evolved from a different first cell, or no cell at all?

While, unlike some sci-fi, these are questions we may soon actually face (especially in regards to AI), Annihilation and Ex Machina are also, like all sci-fi, commentary on actual human relationships. Wow. In both cases Garland is making a case against projecting your expectations and subjective experience onto others. Caleb believes Ava feels the same way for him that he feels for her, and it blows up spectacularly in his face because he’s not willing to accept she may have her own reality. Annihilation takes things a step further, suggesting all our experiences are alien to each other, and our own experiences are equally constantly in flux, and that’s perfectly fine – as I said in our February Roundtable, it really doesn’t matter who came back from the Shimmer. Internal experiences are fluid and impossible to fully communicate – what’s important is acknowledging and trying to bridge that gap, what’s important is allowing for other ways of thinking and being, allowing for the evolution of thought and experience in ourselves and others. There are so many new ways to be.

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