At the heart of Alex Garland’s new film, Ex Machina, is Nathan, the reclusive super-rich young head of an internet company who is spending unspecified amounts of money on developing a robot with true artificial intelligence.
It is a chilling “what if . . . ?” story about a future where one of the most far-reaching scientific developments for humankind is happening away from scrutiny, devoid of ethical constraints and funded by a private fortune.
It is not hard to see the film as an allegory of some of the fascinating and futuristic projects being undertaken by some of today’s technology companies and their billionaire leaders. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, has a pet project in his Blue Origin company to explore ways of making space travel less expensive, for example. Google directors Larry Page and Eric Schmidt are investors in Planetary Resources, a company set up to mine asteroids.
There is, of course, no suggestion that Bezos, Page, Schmidt and others have the sinister motives of Nathan in Ex Machina, but the film did make me stop and wonder what else the technology giants are up to.
One business Google has invested in, 23andMe, which provides a report on your DNA in return for a saliva sample and a fee ($99 in the US, £125 for UK customers), raised eyebrows in the US last year when the Food and Drug Administration ordered the Californian company to “immediately discontinue marketing the PGS [personal genome service] until such time as it receives FDA marketing authorisation for the device”.
Meanwhile, 23andMe, which also sells an ancestry kit that has not been banned, is working on its compliance issues with the FDA. But why would Google have invested via Google Ventures in this business, which seems a very long way from its core activities of search and advertising?
Such projects will not harm technology companies’ prospects of bringing even more people online
It could be partly because 23andMe founder and chief executive Anne Wojcicki is married to Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder — although the couple are now separated. However, a bigger reason becomes clear when you look at Google’s stated mission, which is “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”; genome data are part of “the world’s information”.
The investment in 23andMe might make sense, but other projects are more opaque. In the US in 2013, barges mysteriously appeared in the waters off Maine and California. Journalistic sleuthing revealed they were Google’s, but what were they for? Google eventually told the Techcrunch website: “A floating data centre? A wild party boat? A barge housing the last remaining dinosaur? Sadly, none of the above . . . we’re exploring using the barge as an interactive space where people can learn about new technology.” The company was stymied after the US Coast Guard raised fire safety issues.
Then there is the Liftware “smart spoon” Google has backed, which uses “stabilising technology” to help people with tremors to eat. Google Ideas, which “seeds technology-driven initiatives”, has produced interesting but surely niche projects, such as a resource for people writing the constitutions of new nations.
Still more radical is Google X, the innovation division focusing on what it calls “moonshots”. This team has looked at producing hoverboards, jetpacks and even a “space elevator”. (It also has given the world Google Glass, the wearable technology, and a driverless car.)
Google X is behind Project Loon, a fleet of balloons in the stratosphere to provide internet access for remote areas. Then there are the robots: Google’s purchase of Boston Dynamics — its eighth purchase of a robotics company — at the end of 2013 sparked speculation tinged with concern about Google’s ambitions. It was this investment that popped into my head as I watched Ex Machina as Nathan and Caleb, a programmer with Nathan’s company, interact with Ava, the robot who might have achieved consciousness.
The interest in robotics probably feeds into the “final mile” problem, where delivery of goods is in the hands of a third party. Google and Amazon are experimenting with drones for deliveries, and there has been speculation that Google’s focus on driverless cars is part of a “final mile” objective.
Google is not alone in spending money on projects that seem a long way from its core business of delivering “relevant” adverts to its users. Facebook also has a nominally philanthropic project to bring internet access to the developing world with its internet.org initiative. However, such projects will not harm either company’s prospects of bringing even more people online.
Medical and life sciences are other areas to have attracted investment from the technology giants: Microsoft is working with scientists to develop tools that could spawn HIV vaccines, and it is supporting tuberculosis research via its Technology for Emerging Markets group. Google, meanwhile, has many life sciences projects, including developing a pill that uses nanoparticles to identify health issues such as cancer. At the start of last year Google said it was working on a smart contact lens to help diabetes patients monitor blood glucose levels.
Perhaps Google’s most ambitious life sciences project is Calico, a partnership with AbbVie, a pharmaceutical research company, to invest up to $1.5bn to develop and bring to market treatments to combat ageing — or, as it was characterised at the time, to “cure death”.
It is a good thing, by and large, that technology companies invest in exciting technologies that could benefit the rest of us. But I cannot help wondering whether it is appropriate that huge, largely unaccountable businesses are this deeply involved in areas that are so important.
The clamour is growing for the likes of Google, Apple and Facebook to be made more accountable by paying more tax. The thought of Google being the custodian of extremely sensitive health data is more than a little unsettling. Mind you, we are still some way from the singularity so chillingly imagined in Ex Machina. At least, I hope so.
Ready to go: apps to get the show started
Android, free (in-app purchases)
If you are someone who keeps hitting snooze on your alarm clock, this is the app for you. Set a time, and when the alarm goes off the only way to stop it is to get out of bed, hold your device flat with your thumbs on the marked thumbprints and then spin around twice. It is a no-frills app that has no options to fiddle with: you can’t even change the alarm sound — which is a good thing as it is such a horrible din that you will be desperate to make it stop. The app is free and ad-supported on the Android platform — a one-off payment of 54p removes the ads — but iOS users have to pay up front.
One for parties, assuming the host has a Chromecast dongle on their TV, a few guests have the app and at least one person has a Google Play subscription. The idea is that those who have the app can create collaborative playlists that will play on the TV via the Chromecast. Partygoers can vote up or down tracks and anyone with the app can add a song to the playlist, although the owner of the Google Play account can veto tracks. It is fun for a short while at a party, but the combination of poor sound from TV speakers and your friends coming to blows over what to play might make you long for a proper DJ.
iOS, Android, Windows Phone, free
Huddling over a mobile to look at photographs is not ideal, and mobile owners might prefer others didn’t see all their shots. Xim lets you choose the photos you want to share and pick the friends to share them with from your contacts. They receive a text message that links them to the slideshow the app creates — no need for them to have the app installed. You can all swipe between images, which show on all the connected devices at the same time. Anyone can post a comment, which appears simultaneously on all the devices. After the slideshow is over, the link dies, so your images remain private.