Artificial intelligence and the soul in Westworld by Emmet O'Cuana


Emmet O’Cuana

“The hardest thing to understand is why we can understand anything at all” – Michio Kaku, Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize The 21st Century

HBO’s latest show Westworld, an adaptation by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy of the Yul Brynner 1973 film, has a lot to prove.

The studio needed a popular hit to succeed the ratings smash Game of Thrones, which is winding down. Already in that show’s shadow, Westworld’s premise – a theme park populated by incredibly lifelike robots is visited by human ‘guests’ who are free to do whatever they want consequence-free – felt apposite to the extreme violence and graphic imagery of Thrones. Where Westworld differs is how it contextualizes the behaviour of the guests as amoral within the story, unlike the Hobbesian Game of Thrones. They treat the park’s robots, known as ‘hosts’ like slaves. Largely because that is exactly what they are, expendable and biddable property of the park’s owners. Then hosts played by Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood begin to demonstrate flickerings of what could be called consciousness.

Westworld is a show concerned with religion explicitly, as it concerns the act of creation – Anthony Hopkins’ artifical intelligence mastermind Dr Ford appears to be benevolent, but has a vengeful god complex bubbling away beneath that surface – as well as sin and free will. A returning guest played by Ed Harris, The Man in Black, commits abhorrent acts. But if the hosts are not real people, is he truly doing evil? He even claims he is on a quest to set the hosts free, liberating them from the cycle of violence and death they are caught in.

Is there a moral case against The Man in Black for his outrages? Or is Ford’s restriction of free will and choice the real outrage, given the hosts’ suffering at the hands of the park’s guests?Artificial intelligence is not simply introduced in Westworld to facilitate the premise. There are repeated hints that the largely unseen techno-corporate future society has eliminated risk and illness. The guests are visiting Westworld in order to experience some sense of danger absent from their lives.

The robots of the park are therefore victims of a particularly sadistic atavism, as humans indulge in a time period before supreme safety secured supreme morality. In the future everyone can afford to be good in their day-to-day lives, because they do not want for anything.

This post-scarcity future implies that humans will indulge in unhealthy, sinful, behaviour if free from consequence. The park is a hyperstimulus, as processed sugar is to a piece of fruit. Overindulgence is harmful, even deadly. Take for example the reported case in March 2015 of gamer Wu Tai playing World of Warcraft in a Shanghai café for 58 hours straight and dying. So in Westworld we have humans trying to escape into a virtual world and robots awakening from a dreamlike existence into the real world.

In dialogue Dr Ford namedrops Julian Jaynes. In his seminal text The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Jaynes described his theory of how consciousness evolved. Humanity’s early understanding of the world was vastly different to ours. We ascribe our thinking to indivdual reason. Ancient peoples heard ‘gods’. Jaynes argues survival instincts were assumed by humans to be a voice in their head speaking to them – a divine presence.

In Westworld the robots who are awakening to consciousness are experiencing something similar, causing them to question their reality.

While it is entertaining to enjoy Westworld as a rumination on the moral complexities of artificial intelligence, poetic licence is used liberally in the show. The hosts are stated to be superior to humans in every way, to allow for their features to be customised and best facilitate the fantasy of a wild west adventure. However, that assumes the concept of personhood is dependent on system complexity.

Dr Ford refers to a triangle representing the intelligence of the hosts on a chart in his discussion of Jaynes, with a missing step at the peak for the unknown stage that would make them indistinguishable from humans.

In the theological-fictional schema of the show that step is implied to be the soul. Westworld, as a work of science fiction, is interested in relating spiritual concerns about our existence to the problem of artificial intelligence. As a genre, sci-fi has a certain fluidity that allows it bounce between the ineffable and the experiential. But if the singularity were to occur, it is likely the result will be something totally alien to our understanding of what makes a person. Westworld is not a show about robots – it is a show about how we as a species dehumanise and victimise humans with hate and violence.

About the Author

Emmet O’Cuana is a freelance critic and writer with reviews, features, and fiction featuring in Hopscotch Friday, Crosslight, FilmInk, 100% Biodegradable, Proximity, Decay Magazine and Aurealis. He contributed to Darragh Greene and Kate Hoddy’s Grant Morrison and the Superhero Renaissance.

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