The Good, The Bad, and The Artificial

By Matthew Reynolds

Confession time: ever since I was young, I’ve been a nerd. I embrace the title; I enjoy science and comic books, and I like to talk about theoretical possibilities of the future. I started reading science fiction stories around the time I turned 10 and worked my way up to Aldous Huxley, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, and Haruki Murakami over the years. But I vividly remember my dad handing me Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories when I was in the fifth grade and getting pulled into foreign worlds full of dystopian societies and artificial intelligence. Recently, my nerd nerve has been stimulated again. I feel that 5th grade sense of wonder (for the first time in a long time) thanks to HBO’s new TV show Westworld.

 

- The Premise: Westworld is a new spin on the 1973 Michael Chrichton film by the same name. It takes place in a future where the mega rich can go to a secluded western “theme park” inhabited by artificial beings designed to look, feel, and act like humans – “hosts,” as the show calls them. The hosts are programmed to be indistinguishable from human guests, so much so that many visitors forget that they’re surrounded by AI. Human guests can live out their darkest and most adventurous fantasies, and no behavior is off-limits inside the park. The hosts are programmed to believe that they really live in this western town and are completely oblivious to the outside world – and they’re restricted from harming human guests (they can’t physically attack a guest, the bullets don’t penetrate human skin, etc.) But most importantly, the hosts are programmed to follow a script; a host is incapable of free thinking, or even touching a weapon unless it’s permitted by the coding in their character’s script.

- The Cast: Evan Rachel Wood and James Marsden play Dolores and Teddy, two AI hosts in the park. Anthony Hopkins plays Dr. Robert Ford, the creative director of the park, and Ed Harris plays the mysterious Man in Black – a guest in the park on a bloody mission to find the hidden secrets of Westworld.

- Why any of this should matter to you: We have artificial intelligence in our lives now – this very well could be the stuff of reality in the future.

 

Aside from the fact that Westworld is thoroughly entertaining, beautifully written, and bursting with breathtaking shots of western landscapes, it presents the viewer with the same dilemmas about AI that we face in our own world. It confronts some of the decisions engineers will face in the coming years. It highlights the moral ambiguities that come with playing God, and may eventually (in later episodes) show viewers the horrors of what could happen should AI ever turn against us.

The show has an ominous cloud of inevitability about it, teasing an upcoming moment where artificial intelligence gains consciousness, and real-world thinkers are questioning the possible futures of artificial intelligence because of the show. Christopher Atkeson, a professor at the Robotics Institute and Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Melon University, spoke with Business Insider about the show. He mentions how a lot of the technological concepts the show displays already exist, like “programs that replicate themselves and travel over a network” or “complicated programs that know and understand.” But instead of fleshy host-bots that look like a rancher and speak with a Texan accent, our real-world AI comes in the form of cell phone assistants like Siri and X-box’s Cortana.

I’ll avoid getting into the specifics of the show because it’s worth the watch and I’d hate to spoil one of the numerous twists it has in store. Although we haven’t reached AI consciousness yet, it may spontaneously arrive without our knowledge. Last week on the show, however, a human character dropped a truth bomb on viewers: “The only thing stopping the hosts from hacking us to pieces is one line of your code.”


But putting aside the existential threat of AI sentience and a violent cowboy revolution, I’m really into the show.

 

 

Matthew Reynolds is an Editorial Assistant at Oxford Economics, where he aids research programs in a variety of industries.