Given how all over the place conversations are on safe, responsible and beneficial AI development at the moment, I thought it worth posting this chapter from the 2018 book Films from the Future
In 2018 I wrote about thinking in broad, creative, and deeply interconnected ways about the befits and risks of increasingly transformative technologies in the book Films from the Future.
Not surprisingly, one of the chapters dealt directly with AI. This was way before the advent of LLMs, generative AI, and platforms like ChatGPT. However, the underlying ideas are more important today than they were five and a half years ago. And because of this, I thought it worth posting the chapter in full here.
This is a long a long read — hopefully ideal for a Sunday afternoon. Just in case the format’s more useful though, here’s a PDF of the original.
By way of context, the book uses science fiction movies as a way of explore complex and often overlooked aspects of socially responsible innovation. In this case, the movie is Ex Machina.
As a result, there are spoilers here — but they are necessary to dive into the perspectives that follow.
And don’t let the science fiction put you off—this is fairly and squarely about how we think differently about the challenges and opportunities presented by AI in the real world!
EX MACHINA: AI AND THE ART OF MANIPULATION
(From Chapter 8 of Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci Fi Movies)
“One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.” —Nathan Bateman, Ex Machina
Over two millennia ago, the Greek philosopher Plato wrote The Republic. It’s a book that continues to be widely influential. And while it’s not widely known for its insights into advanced technologies, it’s a book that, nevertheless, resonates deeply through the movie Ex Machina.
Like Ghost in the Shell (chapter seven), Ex Machina explores the future emergence of fully autonomous AI. But unlike Ghost, the movie develops a plausible narrative that is set in the near future. And it offers a glimpse that is simultaneously thrilling and frightening into what a future fully autonomous AI might look like. Forget the dystopian worlds of super-intelligent AIs depicted in movies like The Terminator,  Ex Machina is far more chilling because it exposes how what makes us human could ultimately leave us vulnerable to our cyber creations.
But before getting into the movie, we need to take a step back into the world of Plato’s Republic.
The Republic is a Socratic dialogue (Plato was Socrates’ pupil) that explores the nature of justice, social order, and the role of philosophers in society. It was written at a time when philosophers had a certain standing, and they clearly wanted to keep it that way. Even though the piece was written in 381 BCE, it remains remarkably fresh and relevant to today’s democratic society, reflecting how stable the core foundations of human nature have remained for the past two-plus millennia. Yet, enduring as The Republic as a whole is, there’s one particular section—just a few hundred words at the beginning of Book VII—that is perhaps referred to more today than any other part of the work. And this is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
Plato starts this section of the book “…let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened…”  He goes on to describe a cave, or “underground den,” where people have been living since their childhood. These people are deeply constrained within the environment they live. They are chained so they cannot move or turn their heads, and they can only see the wall facing them.
Behind and above the cave’s inhabitants there is another wall, and beyond that, a fire that casts shadows into the cave. Along this wall, people walk; puppeteers, carrying carvings of animals and other objects, which appear as animated shadows on the wall before the prisoners. Further beyond the fire, there is an opening to the cave, and beyond this, the sunlit world.
In this way, Plato sets the scene where the shadows cast into the cave are the only reality the prisoners know. He then asks what it would be like if one of them was to be released, so they could turn and see the fire and the puppeteers carrying the objects, and realized that what they thought of as being real was a mere shadow of a greater reality. And what if they were then dragged into the light that lay beyond the fire, the rays of sun entering through the cave’s entrance and casting yet another set of shadows? He then asks us to imagine what it would be like as the former prisoner emerged from the cave into the full sunlight, and saw that even the objects casting shadows in the cave were themselves “shadows” of an even greater reality?
Through the allegory, Plato argues that, to the constrained prisoners, the shadows are the only reality they could imagine. Once freed, they would initially be blinded by the light of the fire. But when they had come to terms with it, they would realize that, before their enlightenment, what they had experienced was a mere shadow of the real world.
Then, when they were dragged out of the cave into sunlight, they would again initially be dazzled and confused, but would begin to further understand that the artifacts casting shadows in the cave were simply another partial representation of a greater reality still. Once more, their eyes and minds would be open to things that they could not even begin to conceive of before.
Plato uses this allegory to explore the nature of enlightenment, and the role of the enlightened in translating their higher understanding to those still stuck in the dark (in the allegory, the escaped prisoner returns to the cave to “enlighten” the others still trapped there). In the book, he’s making the point that enlightened philosophers like
himself are critically important members of society, as they connect people to a truer understanding of the world. This is probably why academics and intellectuals revere the allegory so much—it’s a pretty powerful way to explain why people should be paying attention to you if you are one. But the image of the cave and its prisoners is also a powerful metaphor for the emergence of artificial forms of intelligence.
The movie Ex Machina plays deeply to this allegory, even using the imagery of shadows in the final shots, reminding viewers that what we think to be true and real is merely the shadows of a greater reality cast on the wall of our mind. There’s a sub narrative in the film about us as humans seeing the light and reaching a higher level of understanding about AI. Ultimately, though, this is not a movie about intelligent people reaching enlightenment, but about artificial intelligence…