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I’m not what you would call a fan of Westworld. As an AI reporter, telling this to people often triggers an audible gasp, followed by a look of disbelief and disappointment. Despite my lack of enthusiasm for the show, I plan to watch every episode of season two, which starts Sunday on HBO, and developers should too.

Earlier this week, I attended a showing of episode one in San Francisco and had an opportunity to chat with members of the cast. I took the interviews because I wanted to know how people playing parts in a show that shapes the world’s perception of AI felt about the impact of AI.

Shannon Woodward plays Elsie Hughes, a programmer whose job is to fix renegade robots. Ask her about the implications of the show and she may defer to Westworld producer Jonathan Nolan, who starred in the recently released documentary Do You Trust This Computer, but she still has a lot of thoughts about issues raised on Westworld.

She’s concerned about the “breakneck pace” of progress at companies like Alphabet leading the future of AI, and after Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress, that lawmakers aren’t yet equipped to regulate AI. She likes the idea of a robot bill of rights to protect them from overt abuse, and she’s convinced there will someday be a theme park just like Westworld full of humanoid robots, an environment that will encourage human narcissism or other negative human traits. This attitude is already here among people who use sex dolls, Woodward said.


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“People ask me sometimes, ‘Do you think somewhere like Westworld will ever exist?’ And I think ‘Yeah, because we made this show,'” she told VentureBeat in an interview. “I think it really would function the same way, particularly if run by people who watch this show.”

The exploration of topics like unintended consequences of machine intelligence or how robots could change humanity makes her happy the show has inspired conversation.

“Life imitates art, and what art creates is the fantasy; it gives us bullet points of what to fantasize about,” she said.

Last year, futurist David Brin predicted a “robot empathy crisis” would come in the years ahead, spurring debate among humans about the right way to treat a robot that looks and acts like a human.

It may be easy for some to dismiss ideas like robot personhood or a robot empathy crisis, but it’s a worthwhile discussion, and Westworld is one of the only shows on television that persistently explores how human treatment of machines could change our humanity or reflect our worst demons. After all, slavery doesn’t just affect the enslaved — it also corrupts those who treat them as less than human.

One takeaway from watching the season opener of Westworld is just how dark the show’s depiction of AI is, and that AI for good needs its own TV show to play out a counter-narrative, something like Microsoft’s AI for Earth on steroids.

The world deserves nuance when describing the potential impact of AI. It’s imperative that people make space in their imaginations for a Westworld hellscape, but also for computer vision that protects endangered species or increases crop yields, or AI assistants that help children cope with trauma.

Another takeaway drawn from watching Westworld is that it doesn’t really matter if the show was created by great storytellers or people with an intimate understanding of how things like deep learning works. It is, as Woodward points out, a show that can construct fantasies of what’s possible with AI.

One part of the popular narrative around artificial intelligence stems from the work being done to spread AI to all corners of society by tech giants, governments, and businesses.

The other half comes from art and imagination about what’s possible like the movie Her or shows like Black Mirror or Humans. Silicon Valley may be overly optimistic in its dreamy depictions of AI (see this Microsoft Common commercial), but Westworld, like The Terminator, presents a nightmare. Both color the world’s perception of what’s possible with intelligent machines.

So even if you’re like me and don’t host Westworld watch parties, it’s important that developers — and every developer will come to use AI at some point — wrap their minds around the scenarios played out on the show.

Personally, I don’t think the fear of the Skynet scenario played out in shows like Westworld is always helpful because it can pull attention away from lower-hanging fruit. There are more pressing problems to deal with before sentient machines, like AI used to hand down disproportionate court sentences to African-Americans or assuring datasets being used to train neural networks in health care don’t exclude certain populations like women. But you can’t ignore Westworld.

Many developers may point out that AI today has narrow applications and no human traits. That’s true — general AI like the kind on display in Westworld doesn’t exist yet — but you should still watch the show. Just as Star Trek inspired the futuristic fantasies of a generation of people in technology to invent things they saw on the show or to embody the ethics of the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, Westworld may do the same.

It’s part of the popular culture imagination of how AI will change the world and our lives, and it cannot be overlooked.

Thanks for reading,

Khari Johnson
AI Staff Writer

P.S. Please enjoy this video of Facebook director of AI research Yann LeCun discuss the kinds of innate priors that should be built into deep learning systems with Stanford NLP Group professor Christopher Manning:

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