HBO’s Westworld, a reimagining of Michael Crichton’s 1973 feature Gunslinger film debut, is quickly gaining a cult following akin to Lost, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones. The re-envisioned Westworld eschews the campy feel of the original while remaining true to the fundamental premise (Figure 1). At the heart of both iterations is an exploration of what can happen when man plays God. Oh, and the soundtrack is awesome, highly recommend checking out the saloon piano interpretation of “Paint It Black.”
Before going too much further, here is a crash course for the uninitiated. Westworld is a futuristic theme park set in the late 19th century “American frontier” time period (fun fact: The classic version also included a Medieval World and Roman World as part of the larger overall theme park known as Delos). Imagine an immersive, open world video game—but instead of virtual reality goggles, it relies on actual androids acting in a somewhat controlled real-world environment. The androids, simply referred to as robots in the original and “hosts” in the new version, exist solely for the entertainment of visitors to the park.
Figure 1: Yul Brynner as the Gunslinger in 1973 film. The antagonist and original Westworld “man in a black hat.”
Four years before the original 1977 Star Wars hit the big screen, the old school Westworld asked some pretty heavy techno-ethical questions for its day. Even in the original take, the robots of Westworld were so complex that they could only be designed by another artificial intelligence (AI). Because of this fact, the lab-coat-wearing human engineers and scientists who designed the park really didn’t understand how the robot technology actually worked. Hence their confusion when the robots began to experience failures that seemed to follow patterns of an infectious disease spreading amongst organic-based lifeforms. The failures ultimately led to the slaughter of the park’s human guests and staff.
While the film was predictably light on answers, we are rapidly approaching a time where these concepts will no longer be contained to the realm of science fiction. In the 21st century, most of us would hardly bat an eye to the notion of a computer virus spreading from one computer to the next over the Internet. However, AI is still fairly nascent though it is rapidly becoming a reality thanks to efforts such as IBM’s Watson. Packaging that AI into human-like form factor still remains perhaps the most elusive challenge, an idea referred to as “crossing the Uncanny Valley.” Westworld shows us a world where we are successful in making that leap.
So where does this all lead? The original Westworld made us think about the ethical implications of building technology so complex that we don’t understand how it fundamentally works. In modern parlance, what we are concerned about is creating a “Seed AI,” which is an artificial intelligence that is sophisticated enough to design another, more complex AI on its own. If these derivative AIs are then used to build products for mass consumption, who is liable if there is a design flaw? The owner of the AI or the person who designed the seed AI? Would consumers even be comfortable to purchase an AI-designed automobile in the first place?
These are big questions with serious implications that will soon have to be addressed in the real world. Even in the short term, the emergence of autonomous vehicles is already forcing us to ask ourselves if we are willing to trade our trust of human intelligence behind the wheel for an artificial one. While the electronics and software that will power the first generations of AVs will be built specifically for the task, it’s not a stretch to believe that general purpose AI will eventually be used—not unlike how computers were initially purpose-specific machines before evolving into the general purpose computers we enjoy today.
The modern take on Westworld is a much more sophisticated and philosophical study of humanity's relationship with technology. While there is no way to know what the ultimate narrative destination will be for this version of Westworld, there are lots of new hypothetical ethics questions to tide us over on the journey. Based on what we know so far about the show, the crux of the story seems to revolve around the question “what does it mean to be alive?” Or “what is life?” What makes the question so much more intriguing is that in this Westworld all it takes is a simple swiping gesture on a tablet to dramatically change the personality and other behavioral characteristics of an android host. Just as easy as changing the color and intensity of a modern smart light bulb using your smartphone.
In addition to updating the storytelling style for a 21st century audience, “New” Westworld recalibrates its vision for our future based on the current state of technology. The opening sequence visually describes the construction of the robotic hosts. Instead of a mechanical assembly process, the hosts are seen being created using futuristic 3D printing and other additive manufacturing techniques (Figure 2). And it’s not just plastic or metals as the base material but organic material as well. Even today researchers are exploring 3D printing individual body parts. What would stop us from eventually putting all these parts together to create a complete life, human or animal?
Figure 2: The new Westworld offers a glimpse at the possible future of additive manufacturing/3D printing.
Manufacturing technology is not the only technology that is explored out to its logical conclusion. At any moment, the park operators high atop their mesa-topped control center can call up any minute detail about what is going on. No doubt a complex network of sensors and cameras enable this “Big Brother”-esque surveillance. One might argue that this fictional technology is akin to what many envision the Internet of Things (IoT) will become in the real world. If a true IoT does become reality, what would keep it contained to a theme park? Surely the “eye in the sky” capabilities shown in Westworld would be eagerly desired by governments in their fight against crime and terrorism.
Shows like Westworld not only make good entertainment, but can also be inspirational to the next generation of engineers, scientists, and technicians. They serve as a reminder that technology is inherently amoral. How it’s used is subject to whims of people. So those turning today’s science fiction into tomorrow’s engineering fact need to appreciate the implications of what we build. And so far Westworld is doing a bang up job on that front.
It will be interesting to see what will happen over the next forty years. Forty years ago, the original Westworld’s foreshadowing of malware spreading across the Internet was too farfetched for most people to really comprehend. Today, anyone who has ever touched a computer is keenly aware of the inherent dangers of opening an email attachment from an unsolicited source. Perhaps by the late 2050s the notion of having AI-powered androids as a laborers, co-workers, or companions will no longer be mere science fiction. If so, what will their legal status be in the real-world? What are the repercussions, and who is liable if an android causes damage to a person or property? Can the company who manufacturers the android still be liable years after it is sold to a consumer and has had time to “learn?” Can an android even learn bad behaviors? If I buy an android and eventually get tired of it, can I legally sell it to someone else? Can I sell an android to another android? Is that not slavery 2.0? The questions just keep coming!
In short, the new Westworld is a playground for innovative ideas on how still-to-be-invented technologies and humanity could collide in the not too distant future. Your turn now! Have you been watching the new Westworld? If so, what are some examples of fictional technologies you’ve seen on the show that intrigue you? How do you think we could make them a reality? Should we? Let us know in the comments down below.
Michael Parks, P.E. is the co-founder of Green Shoe Garage, a custom electronics design studio and embedded security research firm located in Western Maryland. He produces the Gears of Resistance Podcast to help raise public awareness of technical and scientific matters. Michael is also a licensed Professional Engineer in the state of Maryland and holds a Master’s degree in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University.
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