HBO’s Westworld debuts on Sunday as a major TV show that delves into enduring sci-fi and morality themes about whether we should create human-like artificial intelligent beings, how we should treat them, and what’s the difference between humans and machines. I talked in a group with the creators of the show, and during that conversation, video games, virtual reality, and real-world technology came up over and over.
It’s a show that is relevant to Silicon Valley, techies, sci-fi fans, and gamers. That may not be obvious, as it’s a Western, but it speaks to the frontiers of technology and how we behave when we play. The show is a remake of Michael Crichton’s sci-fi film of 1973, where rich guests can take a vacation in the almost-real theme park of Westworld, which is full of androids who are instructed not to harm the human guests. The human guests can do anything they want, with no consequences, according to the corporation that runs the technological paradise.
The show runs with Crichton’s original idea of the theme park inmates turning on their masters. Filmmaker JJ Abrams broached the idea of a remake 20 years ago, and HBO finally made it happen with executive producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. I joined watched the first three episodes and attended a press briefing yesterday with the Nolans and three of the show’s actors and actresses. The conversation will be fascinating to techies, gamers, and anyone who ponders the questions about who we really are deep inside, once we shake off all the rules and enter a world like Westworld, where you face no consequences and you can do everything that you’ve ever fantasized about.
“It was a chance to tell a frontier story on two levels,” said Joy. “On the one level, it’s on the frontier of science — all the more so now, when what was once pure science fiction is much closer to science without fiction, in terms of the development of AI. There’s also the Western landscape. The ability to approach that from a new angle was a playground we couldn’t resist.”
The Nolans did research into real deep learning A.I. projects such as Deep Mind, Google’s A.I. that beat the top human Go player, as well as IBM’s Watson supercomputer, which beat the world’s best human Jeopardy player.
“That’s a landmark moment,” Nolan said. “There’s a lot of money behind machine intelligence in this town.”
Of course, some companies didn’t want to be publicly associated with the conversations, because Hollywood’s tendency to associate A.I. with the apocalypse (The Terminator) or other downsides of A.I., where the robots go bad. Nolan read about consciousness, which has been the domain of philosophers as much as scientists. Nolan noted that both Larry Page of Google and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook are “on a tear to be the father of A.I.”
“For a long time, people have been talking about ideas like this, but without the technical wherewithal to re-create it or manifest it,” Joy Nolan said. “Now science is catching up with the imagination and exceeding it. It’s an iterative relationship.”
I asked if Westworld was a physical place or a virtual place. If it was the latter, I could think of it as the Star Trek Holodeck, or a video game where I would suffer no consequences in the real world for my virtual actions. I could play in that space and not worry about who I shot. If it’s a physical place, I would be more worried about how I treated the other human A.I.
Joy responded, “It’s funny, because again, is morality a circumstantial thing or a personal thing? In that way, morality is something that’s based on rendering. How detailed is the image? Because you’re doing the same things. It’s just to one thing that’s more detailed and more lifelike than another. Your behavior is the same in both cases. If it’s one way in a video game, and then you have the game as a virtual reality, and then you have the virtual reality manifest in automatons playing out the exact same scene, does it suddenly become immoral because they become too lifelike?”
Nolan added, “Part of the reason why there isn’t great outcry — there are some conversations about it. I’m conflicted about it myself. But there isn’t a great outcry about the morality of people playing video games because the simulations aren’t very good. They’re great compared to what we had when we were kids, but they’re still distinctly un-real.”
And he said, “You imagine that this story is taking place in a world where, if you have the means to do so — VR is what everyone else does. That’s basic. This is reality. That’s what they’re selling. Forget VR and come here because it’s real. That introduces a problem. Morality isn’t a problem in video games because the simulation — a character says this in the pilot. The simulation is poor enough that you don’t conflate the experience. In film and television, we struggle to make violence as real as possible. We look at visual effects shots and blood splatter and say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t quite look real, do it again.'”
He added, “We’re looking for verisimilitude, but that two-dimensional screen is a distancing device. As our simulations get more granular, more perfect, we will be confronted with this problem. Now it feels too real. The morality of what you do in that world becomes a lot more confusing when two things happen: when the simulation is indistinguishable from reality and when the intelligence of the non-player characters you interact with eclipses a certain level. Then it’s much more problematic. Driving around in Grand Theft Auto and running over a bunch of pedestrians is happening right now.”
He also said, “In the era of Pong, he anticipated Grand Theft Auto. My wife, who’s the only person I’ve ever seen Grand Theft Auto and actually obey the traffic signals — Ford comments on this in episode four. He and his partner Arnold build the park with an eye toward open space. They built 100 happy storylines. And everyone went with the more sadistic or at least the more self-aggrandizing experiences. Exercising power, as he says.”
Actress Thandie Newton, who plays Maeve Millay in the show, said, “Part of what’s so important are boundaries, incredibly important. We’re all talking about boundaries, about divisions in nations and all sorts of things. That’s what’s crucial to Westworld, that what happens in Westworld stays in Westworld. You literally go through a door, get on a train, and transition into a place. What’s going to be fascinating is when those boundaries become messy, which you see — these breakthroughs of dreams.”
We can draw a parallel between Westworld and virtual worlds or social networks, where we see an insidious, paranoid distrust of the system and the hidden biases that keep people from understanding the bubble that they’re living within.
Above: The evil androids in Westworld. Image Credit: HBO
“The miscalculation (of social networks) was more that these tools would usher in an age of information, rather than an age of misinformation,” said actor Jeffrey Wright, who plays technologist Bernard Lowe in Westworld. “That’s the thing that, for me, was most surprising. We’ve just added to the chaos as opposed to any clarity.”
When I asked point-blank if they intended a message in this for Silicon Valley, Nolan and Joy backed off a little and said it was a fantasy. It was meant to make people think but it wasn’t preaching to the world’s technologists. But Nolan added that we have to be careful about what we create.
“I think we’re asking, hopefully, interesting questions about human behavior, about our appetites, and about the moment that seems imminent and urgent, in which our creations begin to ask question of us,” Nolan said. “They begin to regard us. For us, that was the key jumping-off point for the series. It’s not about us talking about AI. It’s about AI talking about us.”
As the conversation developed, others in the room had stronger opinions. Newton said she came to regard the robots in the show as “innocents,” while the tourists were exploiting them.
“To lie to them, to make them feel that they’re human when they’re not. That’s the biggest betrayal,” she said.
At the close, I asked Nolan if we were unlikely to have a Westworld video game where you could shoot everybody.
“If that were to happen,” he replied. “It would be deeply ironic.”