We ask a leading AI researcher if the HBO fantasy could ever happen in the future—and what it can teach us about the present day.
All photos courtesy of Sky Atlantic
Watching Westworld, HBO's new multi-million dollar science fantasy, can be a dysphoric and disorientating experience. As a viewer, you're engaged in a constant process of recalibration, always reminding yourself that the characters you're emotionally invested in aren't people, but robots.
The setting seems familiar—a frontier town somewhere in America—but your reality is constantly challenged: Like returning to a favorite childhood film while tripping on acid. Reality seems slippy and less than real. As anyone who's ever got messed up on hallucinogens will tell you, this isn't always a pleasurable experience.
In Westworld, the most likeable protagonists are supremely lifelike robots: Known as hosts, they fuck, bleed, and sleep. The hosts live in an enormous park, themed to look like the Wild West. All hosts have roles to play—they're saloon bar hookers or brothel madams; cattle hands and ranchers—and crucially, they all believe their stories.
Unbeknownst to the hosts, they're meat and grist to to be abused at the whims of paying guests, who visit the park in order to commit unoriginal acts of violence against them (mostly rape, with a side order of mass murder). Guests can abuse hosts in any way they like, but hosts can't hurt the guests—or can they?
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In a control tower above them all sit corporate overlords, programming the narratives the guests play out. Want to deflower a damsel-in-distress after robbing a bordello? They'll program that for you. After you've had your fun, a clean-up squad will come in and hose down the lifeless hosts, repair the damage and reset their memories: Ready for another day at the theme park-cum-abattoir.
Westworld is as much about the exploiting power of the male gaze as it is about technology. We learn that the park is the work of two men, once partners. This is significant: Westworld is constructed entirely by men in order to satisfy male impulses towards physical and sexual violence. It's a literal reimagining of a Western movie on a lurid corporate scale, where grown men—not schoolboys—act out their homicidal and genocidal fantasies.
Inside this fantasy world, women exist in appearance alone (let's not forget that robots, strictly speaking, don't have genders except the ones we assign to them). The show's protagonist, Dolores, is the oldest host in the park. A blonde beauty in a cornflower blue dress, by the first episode Dolores is shown locked in a nightmare: forced to watch her family and her lover die before being apparently raped by the mysterious Man in Black.
The HBO show challenges our own narratives, specifically the idea that technology allows us to lead fuller, cleaner, and more humane lives: Pedophiles can satisfy their urges with virtual reality and kiddie robots that don't experience trauma or pain; household bots will end exploitative domestic labor. Westworld shows us that human history doesn't follow a linear progression from bad to good.
Is there any truth to the vision of the future Westworld presents? To find out, Broadly spoke to Dr. Kathleen Richardson of De Montfort University, a leading feminist roboticist.
The Wild West landscape was viewed as barren, a place where man could write his subjectivity on the landscape.
BROADLY: Hi Kathleen, thanks for speaking to us. What's the significance of Westworld being set in the Wild West?
Dr. Kathleen Richardson: The Western in US film history has acted traditionally as a way to work through political problems in American society. For example, early Westerns depicted cowboys and Indians, [with] Indians as "savages" and cowboys as "heroes." Later films depicted the roles of the early "settlers" (colonialists) as more problematic. Why is Westworld set in the Wild West today? I think this has to do with the importance of Silicon Valley in our lives; the technologies that are produced in this technological Wild West. A Silicon Valley Westworld is a new take on the original Western.
What themes do you think are important to the show?
Power, exploitation, colonialism. These are all integral features of the Wild West, by the way. The Wild West landscape was viewed as barren, a place where man could write his subjectivity on the landscape. Similarly, the women in Westworld are either innocent virgins or sex workers—and they're the bodies that man can write his subjectivity on. Like in the real world, where those with more power can write their subjectivity on others, the gamers in Westworld are rich.
In Westworld, the hosts are routinely sexually abused before being killed. What are the moral implications of treating robots like this?
You have to realize that the worse fictions have a basis in reality. There are people today who carry out such acts of violence and hatred; some of these actions can be bought from the poor, some of these acts are enacted in political hierarchies. What's depicted in Westworld is a landscape where men don't recognize women as human beings.
Is it conceivable that robotic technology could ever advance to the level depicted in Westworld? Could we have theme parks manned entirely by robots?
Humanoid robots are not very useful, but they feed into people's imagination of fiction so a lot of resources go into developing them. The reality is, that, machines are not humans, and they won't merge.
Could robots ever develop consciousness and be seen as sentient beings of their own?
Robots and AI will never achieve consciousness, just like there's no such thing as unicorns. We will certainly have systems that can mimic behaviors and move in certain ways, and these may well become more sophisticated over time. However human beings can't create life, and because of this we can't create consciousness. To get around this, new definitions of what sentience or consciousness are will develop, but it's just semantics.
What about empathy? Could we ever feel empathy for a robot?
Discussions of whether people feel empathy for robots or whether people could ever trust robots are just marketing strategies created by corporate elites who want to sell their products. It's just part of a new capitalist landscape. How great would it be, we're told, if you didn't need people anymore: You have robot friends, robot lovers. It's neoliberalism at its most extreme.