HBO invited me* to participate in a panel discussion at the Paley Center for Media about their new show Westworld, which debuted on their channel on October 2. (Spoiler alert for the first Episode!) Westworld is executive produced by J.J. Abrams and written and produced by husband and wife team Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. It’s based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 Yul Brynner film of the same name and is a “false-reality drama”about a high-end theme park filled with life-like AI that basically are programmed to let the guests do whatever they want to them. Each AI is programmed within a certain storyline that loops and intersects with other storylines. When a storyline reaches it’s final stage, then the AI is “wiped” and they are slotted back into another story. But things start to get dangerous when some of the AI’s aren’t fully wiped and are retaining “memories” of previous storylines and what they’ve been through. (Since this is HBO, they go through some ish). Basically, Westworld is what would happen if BioWare went to Jurassic Park, rebuilt it as a live-action, fully immersible, real-time Red Dead Redemption RPG theme park and instead of dinosaurs coming after you, a random AI side-character breaks its protocols, becomes sentient and tries to kill you.
Yeah. You didn’t see that in the promos either did you? Read on my friend.
I was given the first two episodes of the series along with a full description of story and I will be honest, after the first episode, I had my doubts (based on the depictions of violence against women and POC) and I was not sure if I was interested in seeing any more..but I was encouraged to watch Episode 2 and that’s where it gets interesting. The show begins to turn a mirror on itself, subtly criticizing on who is writing the stories that the guests, (who are probably more diverse than any HBO show I’ve seen) get to play out. The “showrunner” Lee Sizemore (Simon Quartermain), is a perfect example of the mindset “give them more violence, more depravity, because that’s what sells”, but the theme park’s creator, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) doesn’t agree, and in fact comments on the fact that all of the violence and depravity so central to Westworld’s characters says more about him as a writer and his views of the world, than the guests.
Check out this discussion we had at the Westworld screening at the Paley Center for the Arts in Manhattan.
One of the things that we discussed wass do AI’s have rights? Who gets to make that decision? The other thing that fascinates me in this show is the concept of moral agency. Those who have it (the guests, the scientists) don’t seem to exercise it much and those who need it the most (AI), don’t have access to the concept…yet.The guests and some scientists) behave like “you are not a human being, you are a thing, property, a toy that I have paid for and I can do whatever I want to you.” That realization gave me chills, because that is exactly how black men and women in this country were treated for so many years.
Also, the concept of ethics in AI fascinates me, in that we are quick to discuss machine ethics and quote the 3 Laws of Robotics on artificial intelligence, but what about the ethics of the scientists tasked with creating their coding? What happens when a front end developer or UI designer, with a very limited worldview, gets to create the software? You might think I’m overthinking things, but one only has to look at Google Intelligent Computer Vision software (that’s the AI behind Google Images), to know that if there isn’t a human with sensitive enough background or worldview, AIs can make very embarrassing mistakes.
Or, as in the case of Westworld, very deadly ones.
Westworld airs on HBO on Sundays at 9pm.
*Full disclosure: HBO has given me access to screenings and content but is not compensating me in any way for coverage of HBO Westworld
UPDATE! HBO Sent me this Exclusive Footage of Thandie NEwton Discussing Westworld Behind-the-scenes! Check it out on my new Youtube channel!
•What do you think of the discussion? Please comment below.