I just got the question of whether I think Westworld could happen for real. My answer is “Yes it can, but not in the way you may think.” Here’s why…
For those of you not yet in trapped in the maze-of-the-moment, Westworld is the hit new TV show, based on the 1973 Yul Brynner sci-fi-Western fusion movie. It’s set in the world’s most immersive theme park – Westworld – a Wild West town where robot “hosts” perform realistic narratives for the entertainment of the human guests who come to live out a fantasy and frequently act in ways that would not be acceptable in the real world.
So, could it happen? First of all, let’s say we can manage to invent artificial beings as lifelike as humans. Beings with their own consciousness, reasoning, and feelings. There can be no question that the artificial beings, or hosts, in Westworld are this lifelike. I would say that they are indistinguishable from humans. They even resist the fact that they could be anything other than human when confronted.
Second, why would we put them in a theme park? Westworld clearly states the main reason is for the visitors to be able to shoot, kill, and commit all manner of unspeakable acts, and so live out their wildest dreams to find their inner self. Is this what we want? Few humans fantasize about going on a killing spree. For most of us the barrier to behave in such ways is quite high. Stating otherwise would assume that human morality and empathy is only skin-deep, a layer of pretense painted over raw animal creatures.
So given that we are empathic beings with a rather strong sense of morality, the park is out of purpose. Rather, if we manage to invent artificial beings as lifelike as ourselves, we would in fact need to grant them the same kind of human rights as we grant ourselves. Not only because it is the decent thing to do, but also as a way to preserve our humanity. Then, if we granted these beings human rights, a theme park such as Westworld would be illegal. Just as a similar theme park with real humans would be.
But then, let’s say, that we are psychopaths, the whole bunch of us. That would allow us to treat the beings in the park as the TV-series does. And if you look at the humans portrayed in Westworld, you get the feeling that all humans are psychopaths. But being psychopaths would make us unable to build these conscious, reasoning, feeling beings in the park. Westworld’s artificial humans are clearly displaying a wide range of feelings, such as grief, remorse, anger, fear, and sorrow. And you would need to know these feelings to build them into others. Hence we can assume that there are humans who are not psychopaths, especially not the late Arnold.
All this leads us to believe that it is only the guests and the supervisors of the park that are psychopaths. That would render the park as an illegal and rather exclusive park. This is a slim chance, but it works.
Then comes the question as to whether the artificial beings would rise against the humans. Given that the artificial beings are becoming aware of their situation, my guess is yes they would. As the distinction between humans and artificial beings blurs, and the artificial hosts became aware of their situation, they would likely revolt.
So far we see that Westworld could exist as an illegal and exclusive park. And in this case the revolt would occur.
But wait? Is it that simple? Is this a realistic future scenario? The key is in what else might have evolved during the time Arnold and Robert have spent working on their park.
A large robot from the past
Robotic technology is progressing rapidly, but can they ever pass for human?
Given the time it would have taken us to invent lifelike artificial beings, we are likely to have invented other things too, like finding ways to integrate digital technology with our bodies. In fact, this is not far away today. For instance, we have cochlear implants and lenses today that improve our senses. Naturally we will find ways to improve this technology. And if cochlear implants for people with hearing disabilities could improve hearing far beyond the normal ability, wouldn’t others get these too? Or what if we could get direct links to the internet? This could make it possible for us to access services online via thought alone. Or could we improve our vision by getting connected glasses or lenses. Or why not a direct link to the visual cortex? And given that this would be possible, isn’t it strange that the supervisors of the park are still walking around with smartphone-like devices. Oh I agree that the interface is cooler but it still seems very old school.
At the same time, I expect virtual worlds and simulations to have evolved too. If we are able to build artificial beings that are as lifelike as humans, shouldn’t we be able to create seamless virtual reality (VR)? And if we have virtual reality that is lifelike, why travel to a park? Wouldn’t Westworld be better off as VR experience? In fact, the proof that Westworld is virtual is in the absence of more advanced technology. The lack of implants, mind controllers, and visual inputs, not to mention the constant use of smartphone-like devices, is ensuring me that this is not a realistic view of the future.
But if it is a VR experience, then we need to answer the same question again. Why would Westworld exist? My answer comes from playing computer games. I think Westworld is a game that allow you to experience the story as an artificial being. To break free from oppression, solve the riddles, navigate in the maze, and finally hit the end game. And my guess is that the boss waiting at the end is Dr. Robert Ford.
So, to answer the question, yes, Westworld could happen.
* Senior Advisor at Ericsson ConsumerLab