A search engine could become the first true artificial intelligence

Everything in our online life is indexed. Every idle tweet, status update, or curious search query feeds the Google database. The tech giant recently bought a leading artificial-intelligence research outlet, and it already has a robotics company on its books.

So what if Google, or Facebook, or any of the companies we entrust our information to, wanted to use our search histories to create an artificially intelligent robot? Writer and director Alex Garland’s new film, Ex Machina, looks at just that. Garland has said in other interviews that he doesn’t want his film to be taken as a cautionary tale on the future of AI, which many scientists are worried about. But he told Quartz that there is something we should be worried about: the rise of large, unchecked organizations.

In Ex Machina there is a fictional search company called Blue Book, founded by a hirsute and reclusive genius, Nathan (played by Oscar Isaac). In his compound alone in an unspecified forest, Nathan has built the world’s first artificially intelligent robot, AVA (played by Alicia Vikander). He has invited one of Blue Book’s employees, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to see if it can pass the Turing test, which essentially determines whether a computer can trick a human into believing she is having a conversation with another human.

Nathan uses Blue Book’s search-engine database to create the backbone for AVA’s brain. Every search query builds up a thought pattern that mirrors our own, Garland said: “the way our brains jump around and have non-sequiturs that aren’t really non-sequiturs.” But it’s not just about the tech companies, the information we willingly give them, or even what they’re doing with them.

“I have a kind of genuine ambivalence towards the tech companies,” Garland said, “I see them in many ways as being similar to NASA in the 1960s, pushing our potential forward: They’re the guys going to the moon.” But, Garland said, humans or companies without oversight tend to abuse the power they have. “It’s not just about data collection per se,” he said, “it’s just about power and accountability, and checks and balances.”

Given their financial and technical resources, as well as the sheer amount of data they have on us, we may well see the first AI robot (whatever that means, since intelligence is a fuzzy term in this context) come from a company like Google. While such companies may or may not be doing anything nefarious with our data, Garland said, we are willingly handing it over to them, without knowing what their intentions are. “That I definitely find scary,” Garland said.

And what will future artificial intelligence actually entail? This is one of the main issues Garland’s film contends with. One of the shortcomings of the Turing test is its inability to prove whether a computer is effectively imitating human intelligence, or is truly intelligent itself. “We could recognize in the AI that it might be able to think in some respects better than us, but its experience of the world would be defined by what it thinks and what it encounters, and it would just be different to us.” As to whether to consider such a machine sentient, Garland said, “sentience feels like a function of curiosity.” But he is cryptic about whether AVA is meant to be as intelligent as the humans in the film: “She does a very good job of seeing human life, but that doesn’t mean she is human life.”

Ex Machina has been gradually opening in cinemas across the world since January. It will open April 10 in the US and May 7 in Australia.

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