By Kevin Loria
Note: Spoilers are ahead for previously aired Westworld episodes, as is some potentially spoiler-y speculation for future episodes.
Something is wrong in “Westworld.”
HBO’s sci-fi western drama — a serialized reboot of Michael Crichton’s 1973 thriller by the same name — depicts a fantastical robot-filled “theme park” of the future.
Westworld guests can interact with artificially intelligent “hosts” — gunslingers, brothel madams, a farmer’s daughter, Native Americans, and more — taking part in all the sex and violence that can be jammed into these characters’ storylines. And all of it teed up by the people who are essentially Westworld’s game designers.
But as visitors ride, terrorize, shoot, and sleep with the park’s robot hosts, the designers operating behind the scenes soon discover that something is off.
Along the way, Westworld’s story brushes up against all kinds of uneasy questions — mainly scientific and philosophical — about the complex intersection of technology and people.
While we can’t say where the show is going, or whether it will ever answer any of these questions, here are some of the most interesting ones we’ve spotted so far.
Do we all live in a simulation?
Everyone in Westworld wakes up to go about their day — working, drinking, fighting, whatever it may be — without knowing that their entire existence is a simulation of a “real world” created by the park’s designers.
Physicists and philosophers say that in our world, we can’t prove we don’t live in some kind of computer simulation.
Some think that if that is the case, we might be able to “break out” by noticing any errors in the system, something the Westworld robots seem to be brushing up against.
Can we control artificial intelligence?
Each time the park wakes up (or the simulation restarts?), the hosts are supposed to go about their routines, playing their roles until some guest veers into the storyline. The guest might go off on an adventure with the host — or they might rape or kill them. In any case, when the story resets, the hosts’ memories are wiped clean.
For some reason, a few hosts seem to remember their disturbing past lives. This may be related to a “software update” created by park founder Dr. Robert Ford (played by Anthony Hopkins) or it may have something to do with his mysterious co-founder, Arnold.
Luckily, and for a variety of reasons, AI researchers today believe out-of-control AI is a myth and that we can control intelligent software. Then again, few computer and linguistic scientists thought machines could ever learn to listen and speak as well as people — and now they can on a limited level.
How far off are the intelligent machines of Westworld?
Behind the scenes at Westworld’s headquarters, advanced industrial tools can 3D-print the bodies of hosts from a mysterious white goop. Perhaps it’s made of nanobots, or some genetically engineered tissue, or maybe it’s just plastic that’s later controlled by as-yet-undisclosed advanced technology.
There’s a lot of mystery here, and as we find out in one episode (when a host smashes his own head in with a rock), the “thinking” part of the machines is definitely located in the head. But what’s it made of? And what powers these strange constructs? And how are the batteries recharged, if at all? Can (and how do) they feel pain and pleasure?
These automatons seem like an engineer’s dream as well as her nightmare.
Nothing like this exists in the real world, but researchers and entrepreneurs are working hard to advance soft robots, ultra-dense power sources, miniaturized everyday components (some down to an atomic scale), and other bits and pieces that might ultimately comprise a convincing artificial human.
What is consciousness?
As park founder Ford explains to Bernard in episode three, the other park co-founder, Arnold, had been obsessed with trying to “create consciousness” in the Westworld robot hosts. He gave them memory, improvisation, and self-interest, but had been looking for one more key to consciousness before his death. Was it found?
This is a complicated one, as scientists still don’t understand what’s responsible for human self-awareness. But many scientists believe that different creatures have different levels of consciousness — could the robots have developed this to some degree?
Either way, some researchers don’t think consciousness is a necessary condition to harm people.
Can robots evolve?
“Evolution forged the entirety of sentient life on this planet using only one tool: the mistake,” Ford tells Bernard in the season premiere — something Bernard later murmurs to Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) in one of their strange, late-night conversations.
Could the robots be evolving, and could this be responsible for some growing degree of consciousness? Might this give them other abilities, like the ability to harm hosts, something they’ve been programmed not to do?
Scientists like Stephen Hawking fear evolving robots is a realistic prospect. But artificial intelligence isn’t Hawking’s forte, and AI experts interviewed by Business Insider are fairly certain machines of the future will do exactly what we program them to do, and no more. Then again, neural network systems are learning to teach themselves new tricks, including Google’s DeepMind (it recently taught itself to speak).
What is free will?
Along with claiming that they aren’t conscious, Ford says the robots have no free will, no agency. “They only feel what we tell them to feel,” he tells a member of the Delos staff in episode three as he slices the face off a host with a scalpel.
Yet there’s some clear implication that the hosts may somehow have some degree of consciousness beyond their programming. Along with consciousness, have they developed the ability to make choices about what they want in the world?
It’s hard to answer, as we still debate whether we have free will in the first place — how much we decide our actions and how much they’re influenced by our programming, through genetics and upbringing. Perhaps Westworld’s robots are arriving at a similar question.
How do we behave when we have no limits?
Westworld is like a live-action Grand Theft Auto (or Red Dead Redemption) video game, where players — guests — can go along with the story and participate in the “quests” offered by hosts or they can simply cause chaos in the open world.
Some, like Logan (Ben Barnes), seem to think that they can use this system to reveal their true selves. “This is where you find out who you really are,” he tells William (Jimmi Simpson).
The show seems to imply that most people revel in bad behavior, given the chance, but perhaps there’s some other, more redeeming psychological layer to the way guests interact inside a “fake” world.
What could a mysterious pandemic do to the world?
We still don’t know what’s changing the Westworld hosts and causing them to remember their pasts. But as behavioral programmer Elsie (Shannon Woodward) fears, it seems to be contagious.
When Dolores whispers to Maeve (Thandie Newton) the Shakespeare quote, “These violent delights have violent ends,” something seems to come over her.
Pandemics are among the greatest threats to our world, something that’s almost impossible to prepare for. Westworld seems to have its own vulnerability to some viral threat.
How far past the uncanny valley has Ford take the robots?
In episode three, Ford tells Bernard that the hosts began to pass the Turing test after the first year of the park, meaning they’ve been able to pass for human for decades at this point. Aside from shooting a host to find out whether they’re vulnerable to bullets or not (fellow guests are invincible), only the creators or the experienced can tell whether someone is a cyborg or not.
Which brings up the fan theory that everyone wants an answer to: Is there a secret robot among the staff?
Will people actually abuse artificially intelligent robots?
In Westworld, guests can get drunk, stumble into otherwise peaceful scenes, and shoot up hosts for the hell of it. And they do in the show. (A lot.)
Viciously abusing robots might seem like a problem of the future, but scientists and engineers are actively studying the phenomenon — and teaching mechanoids to avoid their attackers.
In a 2015 study, researchers looked on as children kicked, punched, and threw objects at robots in a public mall. Then they turned this data into algorithms designed to avoid damage to the bots.
Can we upload our minds into machines?
In one episode, Ford casually reminds Bernard that human progress has solved all of problems, save one: death. Meanwhile, the Man in Black (Ed Harris) is searching for a secret maze in the theme park that seems to be the key to it all.
There is perhaps a strong suggestion here, if not outright foreshadowing, of “mind uploading” — the idea that one could recreate his or her own brain in a machine, breaking the shackles of the fragile body we’re born with and moving into an immortal phase of life.
Today’s reality is that, we barely understand how the brain’s individual neurons work, let alone the connections between them — and how they all work together to form consciousness and personhood. And even if we do, the concept of transferring our brains may be impossible according to physics.
You can watch the latest episode of “Westworld” Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO, HBO GO, and HBO Now.
Read more stories on Business Insider, Malaysian edition of the world’s fastest-growing business and technology news website.
Source:: Business By Insider