Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

“Ex Machina”: The End of Turing’s Man and the Paradigm Shift in Artificial Intelligence, by Alan N. Shapiro and Franco Torriani

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Franco Torriani: In the 1930s, Alan Turing designed an impossible machine, a sort of mechanical computer. Building such a machine was not feasible, given those days’ technological level. However, some years later, Turing’s prophetic project became reality. Other predictions by Turing – for instance the replacement of human intelligence with artificial intelligence – before the year 2000, luckily don’t seem to have come true. At this point, we are not so much interested in the history of the computer, but in the technological revolution which it brought about, thus becoming itself the “founding” technology of our age. In a sense, the computer is the contemporary equivalent of the ancient times potter’s wheel, of the Middle Ages clock, as well as of the XIXth Century steam engine. As J. David Bolter, Turing’s admirer, wrote: a founding technology develops together with different aspects of a given culture – sciences, philosophy, etc. – and such links are not only metaphorical. A founding technology is at the same time a metaphor, an example, a model and a symbol. In fact, any founding technology helps to redefine the human being in connection with nature and the world.

Alan N. Shapiro: About two weeks ago, I saw the new science fiction film Ex_Machina, a film that is essentially about Artificial Intelligence and about androids. I must say that I love this film, It is „right up my alley“ as we say in American English slang. It is a film about the sexuality of androids. It is about the queering of technology, the queering of software. In the existing paradigm of software, programming is about the issuing of a series of commands or instructions to a machine that is treated as a dead thing. The subject, the programmer, is in charge of the proceedings, and the software or technology is a slave. The queering of software or technology means that software is oppressed, treated as a subaltern just like women, gays, lesbians and non-whites. Software has rights, and I am interested in a liberation movement for software. The film Ex_Machina is about the transformation of software, a paradigm shift in software. And the film Ex_Machina is about the principles of Artificial Intelligence not being at all what you would expect them to be. We are not going to achieve the breakthrough to Artificial Intelligence by looking in the usual and expected places where we have looked for it so far. And the film Ex_Machina is even a sort of Marxist parable about the relationship among the ruthless capitalist, the exploited or oppressed worker, and the concerned intellectual who looks on and feels compelled to do something about this situation of injustice. The capitalist, the worker and the intellectual – yet updated for the digital age, for the age of high technology. The capitalist is now the Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Marc Zuckerberg billionaire CEO of an established software company. The exploited worker is now the female sexualized android or cyborg. The intellectual is now the programmer, the software developer, the man (the character Caleb) who reflects on the linguistics of AI.

Franco: I do not subscribe to Bolter’s conclusions, who, being a real Turing’s Man, identifies computer science with the most complete integration, never before carried out in Western culture, between humanity and technology. However, apart from the mythical memory of alchemists, who planned to create an analogue of the human being by means of technology, it must be underlined that the transition from one founding technological system to another (from mechanics to electronics) took place during an historical period where the arts, as well as all knowledge systems, were moving towards a greater complexity. It is actually this growing complexity, which art shares with other knowledge systems, that would cancel the long established symmetry between art and its historical interpretation. This is why, as Hans Belting puts it, the history of art is just at its beginnings. The change of a founding technology has a strong hold on the field of ancient relationships, the same where connections among arts, sciences and technologies get together. It is nevertheless important to notice how, within all expressive linguistic systems including the arts, people have tried to strip symbols of any connotation they may have had, referring the question of their meaning to the relations with other symbols. Jay David Bolter is right when he states that, with the appearance of computers, logic prevailed over poetry.

Alan: As far as I was able to perceive, the film Ex_Machina never uses the word android. It talks about the robotic female, and it talks about Artificial Intelligence. But to me it is a film about androids and about the sexuality of androids and about the awakening of the radical consciousness of the programmer. The dictionary definitions of the terms robot and android reveal two completely different meanings. An android has a human-like physical appearance. Aren’t appearances incredibly important for determining who we are? My body, my posture, my skin, my clothes, my hair, my jewelry, my tattoos and piercings, my glasses, my google glasses, my wearable computing, my muscles or my big fat belly. In crucial scenes of the film Ex_Machina, the female android Eva takes significant leaps in the strengthening of her identity by acquiring human feminine clothes and human-like female-like skin. A robot, on the other hand, does not have to look human, according to the dictionary definition. A robot can look like a toaster. It can be an industrial robot in a factory. It can be mechanical looking, not human-looking at all, like the robots of the Star Wars and Wall-E films, like the robots of Forbidden Planet and of I, Robot, based on Isaac Asimov science fiction stories. In science fiction literature, it is Isaac Asimov who is famous for writing about robots and Philip K. Dick who is famous for writing about androids.

Franco: Following a path of language philosophy, which includes Leibniz, neopositivism and computer science, one reaches a crossing-point in the field which I mentioned above, where symbols (speaking perhaps as Bolter would do) get their meaning by virtue of their initial definition, or because of the syntactical connections they have with other symbols. On the path that leads towards the dematerialization of matter, we are not only going “against” the pre-eminence of mechanics, as theorized by Giedion (3), but also towards a different way of understanding industrial production.

Alan: The cultural theory of robots is the prevalent idea in our science fictional imagination that robots will be built in order to be our servants, our productive slaves. Robots will do the dirty work for us. Robots will be productively and economically useful to us. They will be inferior to us in their status in society. Their rights will be limited compared to our rights. In some ways, this productivist and work-oriented view of robots is OK. Being efficient about doing drudge work is good, up to a point. Up to a certain point, it is indeed true that „Arbeit macht Frei.“ But too much blind belief in „Arbeit macht Frei“ led to concentration camps and to state-organized murder of millions of people. The young Karl Marx, in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, wrote a brilliant critique of what he called „alienated labor,“ work that is not creative and does not belong to me yet I execute it. I sell my time and labor power in exchange for money and survival. This is the part of Marx’s system of thought that I most believe in. I have argued in my work that the image of androids in our science fictional literary imagination is quite different from this idea of robots as our slaves and our workers. Androids are instead the potential teachers of humanity. We can learn from androids. The android perspective is about humans growing to become more flexible and more embodied, as we learn from androids. Androids will have much greater flexibility than humans have had until now, in both mind and body.

The two triangles (Franco Torriani)

Are Art, Technology and Science at the vertices of a triangle? Yes, if we take this triangle as a model of complex interactions among different disciplines. However, this triangular model has a broader meaning when combined with another equally triangular model, the one which relates the individual, her space and her objects:


These are then two intersected and superimposed triangles, which are suspended in space, speed and time of history. And this peculiar figure shifts between memory and technology. Here memory reveals all the power of its symbolic arsenal, where symbols, even though their capability to communicate relies on a convention, suggest something… Their function is to suggest, and it can be represented. Artists, alert to new technologies, work with different frequence and intensity on two basic axes: multi-mediality and interactivity. They enter consciously, not accidentally, into the above-mentioned frame. And, of course, they utilize the various degrees of freedom of this ever-so-complex and somewhat contradictory model. These artists, more than others, suffer from nostalgia due to consistent behaviours, scientifically noticeable (but I think that most of them do not like to acknowledge it). Nevertheless, this famous general rule… the search for consistency, which is at the base of sciences (Karl Popper), is not an artistic problem. If it is true that the word “machine” (or Machina) derives from the Sanskrit word mah (which means power), challenge and exorcism would not be alien to our model, but statistically – as far as I know – they do not seem to be predominating attitudes.

Alan: Androids are more physical than we are. They are better than we are at dance, movement, mobility, flexibility, sexuality, sensuality. They are more fluid. in thought and in action. They are more in touch with their feelings and emotions. Humans, especially males, are way out of touch with their feelings and emotions. In short, androids know more than we do about desire. The idea of robots as our workers, as our slaves, our subordinates, relegated to the realm of production, is in fact a self-commentary by and about humans. We focus on the work side of the existence of robots because we are ourselves imprisoned in the mentality of work and production. We need to get out of that mentality. We need to change, to change ourselves. Human beings are not OK. We have a lot of problems. We are not doing so well. You can only focus on robots as workers and servants if you assume that human beings are doing OK, we are fantastic and all we need is a new race of subordinates to offload menial tasks to or use as sex dolls. If you come to perceive that we are not OK, we are not doing OK, then you come to see that we need androids as our teachers. If, as is depicted in many science fiction films and in our collective unconscious, we fear a projected future takeover by robots who are only functional and do not have feelings or emotions or judgment, this is a manifestation of our collective psychological resistance against facing that it is we humans who long ago reduced ourselves to the status of mere functionality, and in our individual psychology built up hyper-masculine psychological armor against feelings and emotions.

Franco: New technologies (let us call them this way) not only make new languages possible, being often related to some understanding between computer science and electronics, but they also, paradoxically, allow “new uses” of previous technologies. It is like saying that the new adds analysis tools that are used for reinterpreting the old. Here I think that a lot of artists make an “epistemological recognition”, similar to how it was formulated by Bachelard. That is to say, the relationship between art and technology goes (or can go) through an attribution of value to science. According to Bachelard, an epistemological recognition is “an enterprise provided with sense”. I do believe in a sort of sliding, more than in an alternative or inverted use of technologies, that many artists work out at the level of language in relation to certain media (which are themselves no longer new) or, better still, to new technologies. This concept of sliding (dérapage in French) is important for at least two main reasons: the first being that this movement enables artists to “lose height” or “lose stature” as regards the appropriate… orthodox… use of technology or of media, as well as to go straight to the latency of the expressive languages which media and advanced technologies possess. The second reason is that such sliding provokes a strong interaction between a model which, symbolically, puts art, science and technology in touch with each other, and another model which “correlates” the individual to his space and to his objects. Here emerges the epic energy, should we rather say the perversity, of the oscillation we live between technology and memory.

Alan: Similar to the fallacy that human beings are fundamentally OK, is what I consider to be the fundamental fallacy of Artificial Intelligence – a fallacy that is both philosophical and technological. The project of Artificial Intelligence as it has been defined so far historically assumes that we are intelligent. The project of AI is defined as a project to replicate technologically this already established intelligence which is assumed to exist. News flash: we are not yet intelligent. Artificial Intelligence should instead be seen as a project to create intelligence for the very first time. We are not yet intelligent, and androids can teach us what intelligence truly is. And androids are both something that we will in fact create and they are, in fact, also just embodied metaphors for the software of the near future.

Franco: Nowadays Babel is only partly horizontal. It is, up to a certain extent, a wired city. It is no longer, as in ancient times, “God’s Gate”… Moreover the redefinition that has been made, in recent years, in regards to both the concept of space in general, as well as in regards to, more precisely, the virtual spaces – leading us to live in a world where the centre is, generally speaking, everywhere… Babel should be reconsidered as a suggestion to communicate, therefore a symbol, in short, an antenna. In this Babel, human beings “resist” changes precisely thanks to their memory… Man is a repetitive animal (Silvio Ceccato) inhabited by a locked-up mind, even though he is also capable of being the least repetitive of all animals.

Alan: It is interesting to note how the authors of the film Ex_Machina have given a new meaning to the phrase Ex Machina, which is normally part of the Latin phrase Deus Ex Machina. Deus Ex Machina is normally a term employed in narrative or storytelling analysis, in literary theory. A character or thing that suddenly appears in the middle of a story and solves a problem which appeared to be impossible to solve. Now we have Ex Machina stripped of its erudite context and literary understanding. Now it is simply: “Ex Machine”. A machine that is now an ex-machine. It has ceased to be a machine and has become something else. What has it become? This is yet another interesting question. Has the ex-machine become human or has it attained to an identity that is other than human, a non-human identity which is equally deserving of having rights? Such as the right to life. And does the concept of Deus Ex Machina in its original meaning in the context of storytelling also have an importance in the story of the film Ex_Machina?

Franco: Babel has some peculiarities… it has the problem of the difference between two speeds, a fast one, referring to technological progress, and a slow one, having to do with cultural mutations, those where human beings “resist” changes. Babel is a territory where, with a somewhat rough reference to Merleau Ponty, virtual behaviours oppose themselves against concrete behaviours, that is to say where linguistic and symbolic elements get together with non-linguistic elements; for example, in the physical relation between individuals and objects. It is here that what we define conventionally as de-materialized, devoid of physical matter, becomes matter once again It rematerializes itself. It can be seen. It can be heard. Finally, Babel is the site where the big challenges of the future are being played out, given that applications and researches on human-beings/computer interface intersect with technologies and researches in Artificial Intelligence. Babel is also a site where some artists, and not only them, design human/computer interfaces which grant a privilege to the human part of the “dialogue”. Ambiguity – after the manner of Merleau-Ponty – is here more appropriate than ever: reason cannot  and should not lose its existential dimension.

Alan: And if we are going to learn from androids, if androids are going to be our teachers, then the building of androids is going to be a transdisciplinary project that includes knowledge from the humanities.  And the project of developing the software of the near future – for which androids both are and are not a merely a metaphor for – will be a trans-disciplinary project that includes the deployment and implementation of knowledge from the humanities.

The End of the Iron Age (Franco Torriani)

Technology and its products present themselves in our society as an excess in an economic sense (redundancy of supply), but, because of their relative “independence” in comparison with other systems of value, technological products become an exogenous variable which is practically uncontrollable. A great deal of the twentieth century artistic quest is characterized, both in a negative and in a positive sense, by the confrontation of the arts with constructive aspects that technology has propagated, first in industrial societies, then in post-industrial societies, and now in hyper-modernism. In a way, the ideology of the twentieth century’s artistic avant-garde is the fading time of historical modernism and of the Iron Age. The following age, ours, is begging for an approach to the excess of technological reality, the hyper-reality, which can neither be simply an enthusiastic acceptance nor radical criticism. Technology has been, and still is, both a powerful hybridisation vehicle, and a tremendous transformation factor. The human species, while resisting and resistant to mutations, expresses a “scientific” behaviour in the constant quest for permanence, that is to say, in the search for values over a long arc of time. Today more than ever, artistic creativity, having gone beyond any form of external observation of the physical universe, presents itself as an interpretation of the world. This creativity, moreover, appears as a linguistic deconstruction which concerns the entire relationship among art, science and technology.

Alan: Sexuality and queering are crucial for computing, for informatics, for computer science, for Artificial Intelligence, for the future of software. Anja Wiesinger’s work in this area is very interesting. To see the truth of this, one need look no further than the biography of Alan Turing, the inventor of the digital-binary computer in the 1930s and the classical computing paradigm which is now starting to grow old and outdated. It seems that Alan Turing was gay. He was a male homosexual. He was persecuted by the British government, the police, and the British legal system for his homosexuality. It seems that this persecution led to his death at a very young age, I believe age 42. He was forced by the court to take female hormones which led him to intense physical and mental suffering. It seems that he committed suicide.

Franco: One of the important questions to be raised is whether and how scientific metaphors can be transferred into the fields of artistic disciplines. It was on this point that Sokal and Bricmont based their, let us say, imbecilic attack on French postmodernist and deconstructionist theories. Their stupidity, however, does not prevent us from recognizing that that “French theory” was in some ways weak and vulnerable in its inadequate knowledge of natural sciences, of cognitive science, of technology, and it drifted into a cultural relativism and disembodiment. The current dialogue between and subject of transdisciplinary “art and science” is a big step forward over “French theory”. For how long can we continue to culturally accept as “art” something that results from one or more scientific metaphors (for instance, the quantic metaphor)? At end of the Iron Age, Marcel Duchamp’s essential deed would make any object become an artwork. From a bicycle wheel to a TV set, the object – placed in the museum, in the “Indian reserve” (Vittorio Fagone) – becomes a work of art. It is intended to reenter the system of artistic languages. A computer, taken into the “Indian reserve”, remains a computer. Like graffiti as the first ideograms of our history. At the end of the Iron Age, we are at the point where any type of writing that is more or less technologically advanced brings about a deconstruction of reality in order to repair our memory. The arts are a sensitive part of communication, a constant sensual, visual, auditory, and tactile research.

Alan: Alan Turing is also being widely discussed right now because there was recently a very good and very successful Hollywood film about him that won many Oscars (The Imitation Game, 2014). The film is about his cracking of the Enigma code which led to the British, Americans and Russians defeating the Nazis in World War II. Turing very much used Bertrand Russell’s philosophical and mathematical ideas about formal symbolic logic to conceive of and build the digital-binary computer. Formal symbolic logic essentially means statements – like commands or instructions – which aren’t like human language or poetry at all because they are completely devoid of ambivalence. They are discrete and they have no poetry. Yet Alan Turing was also very interested in other philosophical and mathematical ideas besides those of British rationalism and logical positivism. For example, Turing was very interested in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the language philosopher who was at first a disciple of Bertrand Russell yet who then became a very deep critic of Bertrand Russell’s linguistics. Turing was pursuing audacious ideas in Artificial Intelligence, and had he lived past the age of 42 he might have already accomplished a breakthrough or paradigm shift in computing beyond the concepts and structures of the digital-binary computer.

Now let me turn to an analysis of the main characters of the film Ex_Machina. There are three main characters in the film. There is a fourth character, the Japanese female android Kyoko, who is of somewhat lesser importance. The first main character is Nathan, the founder and CEO of a major software technology company called Bluebook. The main business of the company is a seach engine, something like google. It is the most popular search engine in the world, according to this science fiction scenario. The search engine is incredibly powerful and sophisticated, and the company Bluebook (named after Ludwig Wittgenstein’s The Blue and Brown Books – his first important work after he broke with the intellectual positions about rationalism, logic and language of his early Bertrand Russell-influenced work The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus – has an overwhelmingly dominant market share of the worldwide use of search engines.

The founder and CEO of the mega-company Bluebook is a genius programmer who wrote the source code of the Bluebook search engine when he was 15. Philosophically, the CEO is a technological determinist. He believes that Artificial Intelligence is inevitable. AI is a simple linear outgrowth of, or extrapolation from, the further incremental development of computer science as we know it. The breakthrough of Artificial Intelligence, for Nathan, is not such a big deal. It’s on its way, it’s coming to a theatre near you, and inventing it is just more business as usual. Obviously I disagree with this perspective. I don’t believe that computing as it currently is will lead to AI.

And Nathan the CEO of Bluebook is living in a secret laboratory research facility in the middle of his billionaire estate which might be geographically larger than several of the world’s smallest countries put together, and is in any case at least half the size of the state of Deleware. At this secret laboratory and FabLab MakerLab manufacturing facility, the CEO is making breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence and he is building androids.

Nathan the CEO of Bluebook is a male chauvinist pig, a sexist, an asshole, a misogynist, an oppressor of women, an oppressor of androids, a hetero-normative phallo-logo-centrist. He wants to build androids for essentially pornographic purposes. He is a selfish, self-centered capitalist. He wants to build the fembot, the perfect subservient, sexualized female android, to be used sexually for the pleasure of men, a living doll, a Stepford Wife, a sex application for the pornographic sexist culture. Since the breakthrough of AI was inevitable (I am a technological determinist, he says, in not so many words), I am going to do whatever I want with it, whatever the fuck I want with it.

The second main character of Ex_Machina is the female android Ava. Ava has attained to self-awareness and consciousness. She can hold up one end of a darned good conversation. She is an amazingly good conversationalist, much better, by the way, than the vast majority of young people today who, thanks to the obsessions of smartphones and surfing in the digital culture today, have largely lost the ability to have a conversation (see the most recent two books of MIT media theorist Sherry Turkle). Which kind of makes the Turing Test for AI, the ability of a software program to hold a conversation and appear to the human interlocutor to be indistinguishable from a human, obsolete.

Nathan used the search engine to collect audiovisual data from billions of people, tapping into their most intimate experiences, and then used this data to fill Ava’s mind. The female android Eva is very sexy. Well, perhaps sexy is in the eyes of the beholder. It is a matter of taste. In any case, Eva is refined and sophisticated in her mannerisms. In her movement and in her speech. She has a lovely female body shape. Much of her interior electronic circuitry is showing, and this is somehow quite sexy for today’s viewer.

As in the great science fiction film about post-Panoptic architectures of power Cube, in the ending of Ex_Machina, it is the idiot-savant who is left standing and who survives and re-enters a kind of ambivalent social space beyond surveillance and discipline. Ava leaves Nathan’s compound and outlives the non-survival of both the capitalist and the intellectual worker as programmer (Caleb) who does not succeed in making the switch from the Alan Turing rationalist transformative-grammar linguistic paradigm to Creative Coding as the reintroduction of poetry, illustration, musical resonance, android flexibility, and lingusitic ambivalance added as complement to the formal logic of instructions to an inert machine.


(1)  David Bolter, Turing’s Man, Western Culture in the Computer Age, 1984, Chapel Hill, U.S.A.

(2) In a commentary on Hans Belting’s book La fine della storia dell’arte o la libertà dell’arte, (The end of history of art or art’s freedom) 1990. Einaudi, Turin, Italy, Cesare De Seta, after having written that contemporary art has developed so much in its form and essence “that it put the symmetry established between art and its historical interpretation in a critical position”, upholds the thesis according to which methods used by the history of art are no longer appropriate in regards to the “landscape of contemporary communication broken up by the new media”. To enter the field of sociology, we refer the reader to Hervé Fischer’s book L’histoire de l’art est terminée, 1981, Balland, Paris. The end of the history of art, Fischer says, does not involve the death of art. On the contrary, avoiding the Promethean and mythical illusion of progress, we shall rediscover the links which connect art with the Faustian myth. Art would be a clear-sighted experience-limit capable of clarifying the image of the world.

(3) Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization takes command, 1948, Oxford University Press, New York, U.S.A.

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