Ex Machina: Just how close to reality is Alex Garland’s robo-thriller?

Alex Garland’s directorial debut imagines a world with artificial intelligence as advanced as our brains. But how far away is it, and will it spell the end for humanity?
Ex Machina: Just how close to reality is Alex Garland’s robo-thriller?

With Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk recently warning the world of the dangers of artificial intelligence, 28 Days Later writer Alex Garland couldn’t have picked a better time to release his directorial debut.

Ex Machina tells the story of a 24-year-old coder called Caleb who wins a competition to act as the human component in a Turing Test run by his billionaire boss Nathan – played by Oscar Isaac as a cross between Mark Zuckerberg and a Bond villain. One minute he’s sweating out a hangover in his home gym and dancing with his live-in maid like a #LAD Steve Jobs, the next he’s intimidating Caleb from the shadows of his concrete-walled lair deep in the wilderness.

Ava little thing she does is magic

Ex Machina: Just how close to reality is Alex Garland’s robo-thriller?
Ex Machina: Just how close to reality is Alex Garland’s robo-thriller?

Nathan’s latest invention is Ava – a walking, talking robot with artificial intelligence that he hopes is indistinguishable from that of a human, even when the tester can see she’s an android with his very own eyes.

“I want people to forget that Ava is a robot, while seeing that she's a robot,” Garland tells Stuff when we meet in London.

“Humans find it really easy to project emotion onto inanimate objects, let alone animate objects. It's very easy to find a child that believes their teddy bear has sentience; the tricky thing would be finding one that says it's just a bit of old cloth and some stuffing.”

And it works. Ava is so convincing as a human largely due to the way she’s depicted on screen. While Andy Serkis has done incredible things creating fully computer-generated characters within live-action films, such as primate-in-chief Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Ava is a real blend of practical and visual effects.

Garland explains how actress Alicia Vikander wore a prosthetic that created a kind of mask face so there's something to map the CGI on to, plus a bodysuit, which is the mesh you see over her chest and shoulders.

“If you actually made Ava in the way that she's constructed she'd probably just fall over,” he admits, but in the film the effect is one of the most convincing combinations of CGI and live action Stuff has ever seen.

Dr Robotics

Ex Machina: Just how close to reality is Alex Garland’s robo-thriller?

In an attempt to strike a balance between pure sci-fi and a believable, present-day reality, Garland employed the expertise offered by Murray Shanahan, a professor of cognitive robotics at Imperial College London, and Adam Rutherford, a scientist, writer and broadcaster. So how far from Ava is Honda's famed Asimo 'bot?

“In many ways Asimo’s pretty primitive,” says Shanahan, probably recalling that video of Honda’s pride and joy tumbling down a set of stairs. “If you've ever seen Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog, that's a much more realistic way of walking. Asimo calculates every single step, which is very biologically unrealistic.”

But Ava isn’t. She can dress herself, draw and move pretty much like a human being. She’s a triumph of soft robotics, albeit one that’s not possible just yet. “When it comes to the hardware it's a matter of engineering,” Shanahan says. “Most robotics these days is made using very hard materials, whereas the stuff we're made of is soft, pliable and compliant. But eventually we are going to be able to produce humanoid robots that are really very sophisticated and Ava-like.”

“Don’t forget we have a four-billion-year advantage over designing robots because we've evolved to be like this,” adds Rutherford. “We are such fluid machines and our mechanics are really sophisticated. I did some stuff with a company based in San Francisco that can get robots to drive cars, walk and jump, but they cannot make them get into cars. I thought that was really striking because it says something about the complexity of physicality.”

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