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Sexuality motivates artificial intelligence in ‘Ex Machina’

Alicia Vikander portrays a sentient machine in “Ex Machina.” (Universal Pictures International)

In his novels “The Beach” and “The Tesseract,” in his screenplays “Sunshine” and “28 Days Later” — and even in his adaptations of other people’s work, like “Never Let Me Go” and “Dredd,” Alex Garland wrestles with similarly knotty themes: the corruption of utopian ideals, the intersection where science and human behavior collide, the possibility that technology can go wrong, go rogue.

In his directing debut, the sci-fi thriller “Ex Machina,” Garland bundles those concepts to explore how consciousness and free will factor into the equation. A billionaire tech titan has developed a sentient machine and invites one of his brainy programmers to spend a week testing her — her name is Ava — to see whether she represents true artificial intelligence, a thinking, feeling entity. Oscar Isaac stars as the search-engine-era Dr. Frankenstein, Domhnall Gleeson is the young techie, and Alicia Vikander, part Swedish actress, part prosthetics, part visual effects, is the robot creature.

“When Ava first appears, she’s very unambiguously a machine,” Garland said. “She’s got missing sections of her body, and a metal skeleton structure underneath, which precludes a possibility that she might be a girl wearing a suit. ... But she has this mesh that sits over the metal structure that follows the contours of a female form. And every now and then the light captures that mesh and you get a glimpse of a female form.

“So even as soon as the machine is presented, something is pulling you away from that sense of a machine, which is the sense of a girl — at least the external silhouette, shape, of a girl.”

And that shape — combined with Vikander’s face and voice and ballet-perfect movements — brings an element of sexuality into the picture.

“The sexbot thing is a bit of a red herring,” Garland said. But the idea of sexuality as an integral part of our consciousness is definitely on point — a point Isaac’s character makes, convincingly, in “Ex Machina.”

“Sexuality is a motivation, a reason to have interaction,” Garland said. “And the more complex the beings become, the more complex those interactions become, the more complex the sexuality becomes. So, it’s one thing with the birds and the bees and flowers and pollination, and it’s another with dogs, or with dolphins, and then it’s another thing with humans.”

What does Garland see happening in the future? Is the sort of independent-thinking, emotionally attuned machine Vikander represents in his movie going to happen in the real world?

“It’s impossible to know. It’s got a lot of parallels with the cure for cancer, in as much as there may be breakthroughs in AI and then what those breakthroughs do is they demonstrate how hard the job is — and the goalposts shift away from where they were perceived to be previously.

“That said, do I think there will be AIs one day that are strong AIs and that have sentience? If I had to bet, I’d bet yes, just in the way that I would bet that there will be a cure for cancer despite all the complexities of cancer. ... I could be wrong.

“It’s not imminent. We’re really not talking about five years. We may not be talking about 20 years. ... You may well be talking about 200 years. And then again, you may be talking about never.”