Ex Machina: Testing Machines for Consciousness and Socio-Relational Machine Ethics

Ex Machina: Testing Machines for Consciousness and Socio-Relational Machine Ethics

Harrison S. Jackson

The New School for Social Research


Ex Machina is a 2014 science-fiction film written and directed by Alex Garland, centered around the creation of a human-like artificial intelligence (AI) named Ava. The plot focuses on testing Ava for consciousness by offering a unique reinterpretation of the Turing Test. The film offers an excellent thought experiment demonstrating the consequences of various approaches to a potentially conscious AI. In this paper, I will argue that intelligence testing has significant epistemological shortcomings that necessitate an ethical approach not reliant on ontological commitments. As such, we should be prepared to treat AI as though it is a living being that is deserving of corresponding moral obligations. For a sufficiently human-like AI, such as Ava, I will argue that socio-relational ethics is the best starting point in order to nurture the machine towards ethical proclivities, as evident by the consequences of the characters’ behavior throughout the film. I conclude that intelligence testing is an insufficient determinant of machine ethics, that the project of machine ethics should focus as much on how we treat AI as how AI treats us, and that from a consequentialist perspective it is better to treat machines ethically before they gain consciousness rather than after.


Epistemology, Machine Ethics, Socio-Relational Ethics, Turing Test, Artificial Intelligence.

About the Author

Harrison S. Jackson holds a Bachelor’s degree in History and Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse and a Master’s in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. He is currently applying to PhD programs in continental philosophy and continues to author articles on a range of topics, including the effect of Middle-Age Papal narrative regulation on contemporary public memory. More generally, his research encapsulates intersubjectivity, phenomenology and existentialism, theories of perception, and philosophy of mind.

Published: 2022 – 06 – 15

Issue: Vol 5 (2022)

Section: General Articles

Copyright (c) 2022 Harrison Jackson

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Copyright for articles published in this journal is retained by the authors, with first publication rights granted to the journal. By submitting to this journal, you acknowledge that the work you submit has not been published before.

Articles and any other work submitted to this journal are published under an Attribution / Non-Commercial Creative Commons license; that is, by virtue of their appearance in this open access journal, articles are free to use – with proper attribution – in educational and other non-commercial settings.

There are no fees for authors publishing in the Journal.