“If you’ve created a conscious machine,” says Caleb to Nathan toward the beginning of Ex Machina, when Caleb discovers Nathan is on the verge of creating an artificial intelligence indistinguishable from human intelligence, “it’s not the history of man. It’s the history of Gods.”

Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland, is an intriguing film about the wonders and dangers of artificial intelligence (AI). Garland’s tale is stylishly told, beautifully photographed, and aided by a clever script that subverts standard cinematic clichés. It’s fascinatingly unpredictable at every turn, right up to the film’s final scene. It is also suffused with religious themes and theological motifs—unsurprisingly, because ever since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the prospect of human beings creating human-like beings of their own has almost invariably raised the issue of “playing God.”

In Ex Machina, Caleb is a computer coder brought to Nathan’s secret research facility to apply the Turing Test to Nathan’s AI—that is, to test whether a human interacting with the robot would be able to tell that the AI is non-human. Caleb compares Nathan to J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the principal creators of the atomic bomb, who said, “I am become death”—referring to the Hindu god Vishnu, “destroyer of worlds.” This is precisely what could happen if humanity’s experiments with AI go wrong.

In building Ava (Alicia Vikander), the first fully “human” robot in both appearance and intelligence, Nathan also compares his act to that of Prometheus, the mythological Greek deity who stole fire from the gods. This comparison is the central supporting beam upon which the entire film—and its literary, cinematic, and theological allusions—rests. In creating a new form of human-like life, Nathan is a futuristic Victor Frankenstein; both “stole” (learned how to create) “fire” (the secret of life) from “the gods” (science). Thus Nathan’s comparison aptly echoes Mary Shelley’s subtitle for her 1818 masterpiece: The Modern Prometheus.

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Can Imago Dei apply to Artificial Intelligence?

Linking the film to Frankenstein allows it to establish not only its link to the literary genre of artificial intelligence science fiction but also to the religious tradition of creation stories. Shelley herself did the same by choosing a passage from John Milton’s Paradise Lost (the most important work of theological literature in the English language) for Frankenstein’s epigraph. Shelley, like Garland—and like the main characters in the film—knew exactly what was at stake when the proposition of humans building other human-like beings is contemplated: nothing less than our understanding of what constitutes a “human being,” and concomitantly—or consequently—our conception of God.

If to be human is to be created in the imago Dei, the image of God—to be, as Milton put it in Paradise Lost, the “human face divine,” since in traditional monotheistic thought, it is God that has created us—then what theologico-anthropological status are we to ascribe to a robot created by us human beings that is for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from us human beings? If we are not prepared to call such creatures “human,” then what shall we call them? “Artificially intelligent humans”? Can such creatures be said to be created “in the image of God”? And if so, what kind of God would we be talking about? Why would God give us the scientific ability to create versions of ourselves? How would we reconceptualize our relationship with such a God? What description are we prepared to apply to the creator of such an AI? What will it mean for us, theologically, ethically, and anthropologically, if future man begins to subsume some of God’s creative capacities?

Raising Questions in a Science-Fiction Film Tradition

All of these crucial theological issues are implicitly (and occasionally explicitly) raised in Ex Machina, the best science fiction film since Moon (2009), another excellent film that touches upon some of these issues. Ex Machina, a film squarely in the Kubrickian “intelligent sci-fi” tradition, raises these issues in a smooth, stylish manner reminiscent of Gattaca (1997) in its sleek, sterile futuristic sets, and the Russian sci-fi classic Solaris (1972) in its slightly claustrophobic feel. Other films have examined the very likely eventual relationship between humans and AI: notably Blade Runner (1982); Sofia Coppola’s Her (2013), in which Scarlett Johansson is the voice of a more advanced version of Siri; and, of course, Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), which was a long-simmering project of Stanley Kubrick’s that Spielberg assumed after Kubrick’s death in 1999 (the film is dedicated to Kubrick). Ex Machina, like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), also takes place in a secluded, sterile environment, employs the barest minimum of a cast, addresses the frightening prospect that future AI may share our intelligence but not our moral and ethical values, and, like 2001, strives to transcend cinema and reach the level of mythology.

2001 was screened at the Vatican, where it received a pleasant reception as it gave viewers cause to contemplate the wondrous beauty and awesome mysteriousness of the universe, God’s creation. It may take hell to freeze over for Ex Machina to be screened at the Vatican (the viewer will understand), but, in contrast to 2001—which placed the story of human history within the narrative frame of evolution—Ex Machina places the story of our eventual creation of human-like AI within the narrative frame of the Book of Genesis.

(*Spoiler Alert*) Like the biblical God, Nathan creates his humans in a lush, secluded, Edenic enclave of natural beauty. Like God, Nathan builds his female AI; in describing the creation of the first woman, Genesis 2:22 specifically uses the language “build.” (Many English bibles follow the imprecise translation of the KJV, translating “vayiven” as “made,” but the Hebrew vayiven really means “and He built.”) The most glaring reference to Genesis is the name Nathan gives his first fully “human” AI: “Ava,” a name which cannot but conjure “Eve.” The film even follows the Jewish homiletic tradition of the creation story, wherein God had to build 974 worlds and destroy each one before finally creating the first genuinely livable world; so too, Nathan, in the film’s most horrifying revelation, builds and destroys several earlier, imperfect AI before he finally accomplishes the creation of Ava. As in Genesis (and as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), Nathan’s creation begins to resent him, and eventually commits a rebellious act that results in her expulsion from Nathan’s Eden—an expulsion that occurs during Ava’s seventh session of testing. (In the Genesis creation narrative, Adam and Eve’s expulsion also occurs on the seventh day of creation.) How Garland portrays Ava’s expulsion, though, is radically different from the Genesis tale.

Jewish Tradition Offers a Response to These Scenarios

The possibility of human-like AI is no longer an unrealistic science fiction fantasy; it is a very real prospect that we are on the verge of seeing, many of us in our lifetimes. We have already developed “soft AI”, which can process data and information better and more quickly than humans; these include the Watson computer that beat human contestants in Jeopardy!, the AI that has consistently beaten chess champions in chess, and the iPhone’s Siri that can understand human questions and respond appropriately. But science experts predict that in as soon as thirty years, we will have “strong AI”—AI that can think like human beings, such as the HAL 9000 computer of 2001, or the computerized voice of Scarlett Johansson in Her.

Very soon, the classic scenarios of science fiction—from Frankenstein to 2001 and Ex Machina—will become science fact. The moral and ethical concerns that such “strong AI” will raise will have to be adequately addressed. I do not propose here to answer any of the multitude of challenges that strong AI will present; I merely propose that it is important to recognize these dilemmas in advance so that we can begin to address them.

In seeking a way to address these ethical quandaries, one helpful way of thinking comes from the Jewish tradition. In Greek mythology, the gods punish Prometheus for his theft of fire. In Jewish mythology, not only does God not punish man for creating fire, but, as Abraham Joshua Heschel observed, it is God who gives fire to man. According to Jewish legend, after Adam’s expulsion from Eden, God showed Adam how to create fire by rubbing two sticks together.

From a Greek perspective—the perspective of Prometheus, Frankenstein, and Ex Machina—the development of new technology is fraught with peril, and can lead to a kind of fall. From a Jewish perspective—and perhaps too from a Christian and Western perspective—the development of new technology is an inherently positive phenomenon. There are certainly hazards, but the crucial point is that we human beings interact with technology through sacrosanct moral paradigms. It is only when we misuse technology that it brings evil.

As with fire, so with AI: Whether it will be good or evil will depend on how we use it. As the midrash (Jewish ethical teaching) states:

When God made man, He showed him the panoply of creation and said to him: “See all my works, how beautiful they are. All I have made, I have made for you. Take care, therefore, that you do not destroy my world, for if you do, there will be no one left to mend what you have destroyed.” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13)