Ex Machina—thoughts on robot and human movement



I went to see the movie Ex Machina, which I enjoyed immensely. Lots of food for thought about the implications of artificial intelligence. It also stimulated my thinking about conscious choice, habit, and movement, both robot and human. As an Alexander Technique teacher, even when I am wholly immersed in a movie, I can’t help but notice movement patterns, and as I reflected later, my number one question became: did the actress playing the robot make a conscious choice to move differently when the character knew humans were not watching? Perhaps watching the movie again will give me more evidence, but here are some preliminary thoughts.

For the most part, the female protagonist robot moved as a “typical robot”, i.e. the way we are accustomed to think of robots moving: in a mechanically sound way, which involves bending at the bigger joints (hips/knees/ankles), and not bending in the torso. I think most of us tend to think of a typical robot form that does not have a spine, thus it would not have flexibility in the torso. The robot in this movie actually has does have a spine (as you can see through the transparent midsection), making it possible for it to be flexible in the torso and neck.

If you are an Alexander Technique teacher, you may notice that even though the actress (Alicia Vikander, in a wonderful performance) was doing her best to bend at the hip joints (a la good mechanical use), she was still doing some bending in the lower back, presumably without realizing it. It would be normal for this to happen, because of what we in the Alexander Technique call “faulty sensory perception.” This is a phenomenon in which you get so used to your habits that you can’t  feel yourself doing them, and even when you try to move differently, vestiges of your old habits remain.

In another “un-robot-like” movement, the robot pulled its head back when bending forward. For humans, tilting the head back is, in itself, not a bad thing. It is possible to do this with great ease, however most of the time, people do this movement as an unconscious habit, and it serves no purpose. When it is an unconscious habit, usually it involves excessive muscular effort (I call it scrunching), and prevents ease of movement, not only in the head and neck, but throughout the body. This is a typical human habit, and I found myself wondering if the actress, as a human, was doing this movement unintentionally.

Only later did I think of another possible explanation. The robot was built and programmed to seem so human it would fool humans. Perhaps the typical human movement of pulling the head back was deliberate on the part of the actress and the director?

Near the end of the film, I happened to notice a moment when the robot was sitting on the ground and reaching for something (bending forward). In this moment it didn’t pull its head back. Was it simply because it was a different movement than I had seen before–seated on the ground and reaching for something as it bent forward? Later I realized that in this scene the robot was unobserved by humans. Could it be that the robot’s default way of moving is more mechanically advantageous (not pulling its head back in bending), and it was in default mode when it was alone? And the less advantageous way of bending (pulling the head back) was deliberately chosen as part of a program to fool a human into thinking it was a fellow human?

Fellow humans: through Alexander Technique lessons, you can learn to move without unconsciously pulling your head back—show those robots they are not the only ones who can figure out how to move in a mechanically advantageous way. Trump them at conscious control!!!

by Heidi Leathwood

image from “free to share and use commercially” file at Yahoo