Techies and gamers should pay attention to HBO’s Westworld, which debuts on Sunday as a major TV show that delves into human artificial intelligence. The sci-fi series explores the morality of creating human-like artificial intelligent beings, how we should treat them, and what the difference is between humans and machines.
In a press briefing, I talked with the creators of the show, and during that conversation, video games, virtual reality, and real-world technology came up a lot.
The show is a remake of Michael Crichton’s sci-fi film of 1973, where rich guests can take a vacation in the almost-real theme park of Westworld, which is full of androids who are instructed not to harm the human guests. The human guests can do anything they want, with no consequences, according to the corporation that runs the technological paradise.
The show runs with Crichton’s original idea of the theme park inmates turning on their masters. Filmmaker JJ Abrams broached the idea of a remake 20 years ago, and HBO finally made it happen with executive producers Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. In our group interview, they were joined by actor Jeffrey Wright (Bernard Lowe), Thandie Newton (Maeve Millay), and Evan Rachel Wood (Dolores Abernathy). They were quite passionate about the enduring themes that the show explores and how the technologists of today are heading into the future without thinking about them.
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They had thoughts about Google, Facebook, and IBM. The message to Silicon Valley? Be careful. And to gamers? We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about who we pretend to be.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Jonah Nolan: The project started more than 20 years ago, when J. J. Abrams sat down with Michael to talk about making a film. Nothing came out of that, but the idea stuck in J. J.’s head. In 2013 he reached out to us and said he’d been thinking about Westworld again. He thought there was a series there and he wanted to know if we agreed. He also, crucially, suggested that one way to reinvigorate or re-approach the narrative would be to consider the perspective of the robots, or the “hosts” as we call them.
For us, that was an offer we could not refuse, an opportunity to do a show about everything we were interested in, in one go.
Lisa Nolan: It was a chance to tell a frontier story on two levels. On the one level, it’s on the frontier of science – all the more so now, when what was once pure science fiction is much closer to science without fiction, in terms of the development of A.I. There’s also the Western landscape. The ability to approach that from a new angle was a playground we couldn’t resist.
Question: In the interview you did for Esquire, you mentioned you’d been keeping track of various research projects. You were interested in A.I. Can you talk about some of the projects and people you’ve been watching?
Jonah Nolan: We’re very interested in deep learning. The progression of that, even as we were writing the show, with DeepMind demolishing the world go champion, made for an interesting tech story, but it’s actually more of a — it’s a landmark moment. Much of the coverage from you guys suggested that. People were interested, although I think because Americans don’t play go, they missed the significance of it. Very interested in that company and their research. IBM presents an interesting model with their adoption and exploitation of Watson as an ongoing business model. It’s becoming the core of their business, employing machine intelligence to solve industrial questions.
We had some interesting conversations along the way with some interesting people. There does seem to be a little reluctance among folks to talk about this, because it’s an ongoing — we’re probably tilting too much toward the apocalyptic language people have often used with A.I. But this is an ongoing industrial concern. There’s a lot of money behind what’s happening with machine intelligence, in this town and globally. It was interesting. It was enlightening.
We didn’t want to feel limited by the research we did, though. I’m a believer in doing a bit of research, but not so much you wind up lost in the woods. We read a lot about consciousness, which seems to remain the domain of philosophers rather than computer scientists. A lot of A.I. researchers seem to want to sidestep the consciousness question, for a number of interesting reasons. Some of them because they know it taps into a cultural conversation they don’t want to engage with at this point. Some of them because — one person said, “If you’re asking me a question about consciousness, how it works, does it exist, in some researchers’ theories the simplest answer is that it doesn’t.”
Question: Do you get this feeling that science fiction is inspiring real-world technology, which is inspiring science fiction again?
Lisa Joy: That’s the Platonic idea of the realm of pure forms. If you can imagine it, perhaps somewhere it exists. For a long time, people have been talking about ideas like this, but without the technical wherewithal to re-create it or manifest it. Now science is catching up with the imagination and exceeding it. It’s an iterative relationship.
Question: You were talking about industrial applications. I was wondering if you could explain what exactly that means.
Jonah Nolan: More in commerce. The two biggest players at this point, the ones that have gobbled up all the other companies, are Google and Facebook. Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg are both on a tear to be the father of A.I., or that’s what it seems like anecdotally. Whether or not they’ll make it, or IBM or whoever else gets there first — it’s a race without a defined finish line.
One thing we suggest in the show is that even if we could define the finish line, we’d probably be inclined to keep moving it as we grow less and less comfortable with the idea of sentience or consciousness in our creations.
Question: It seems like one of the core questions of the show is, “Who would you be if you didn’t have accountability?” Do you think that lacking those restraints — does that change someone’s personality, or does it merely reveal it?
Jonah Nolan: That’s a very good question, which we’ll endeavor to answer over the season.
Question: It seems like the answer is tending toward sadism. You have to be dramatic, obviously, but that’s what we see in most of the visitors.
Lisa Joy: Or you can be the hero.
Jonah Joy: We unfortunately didn’t get as much time, even with 10 hours of storytelling, to cover everything we wanted to cover. But we did design the park as a place that would have a range of different activities.
Lisa Joy: Especially in these early episodes, we’re focusing on the plight of the hosts above ground. Although we introduce characters like the lovely family going for a walk and the cool gunslinger lady who’s there to test her mettle, those are more interludes. In terms of the recurring figure, we’re looking at the man in black, who’s a rather dark figure. I wouldn’t say it’s a judgment of all the guests who go there. But certainly within those episodes there is an emphasis.
As far as the question of what the park can unleash, one thing Jonah and I talked about is how, when you go to the bookstore, the one aisle that’s definitely not empty is the self-help section. The place where people go hoping that there’s the thing they can do to change – to be less shy, to be more charming, to lose weight, to be more aggressive or assertive, to get over their drinking problem. We’re plagued by demons, or things we think are demons but maybe aren’t necessarily, that shouldn’t be pathologized as demons. There is something that seems to be a common denominator. All humans have those things nipping at their heels.
Jonah Nolan: The park is no more sadistic than spending four hours watching your friends play Grand Theft Auto. I think Crichton, when he was writing the film in ’73, anticipated several things. There’s the sequence in which the head scientist, trying to figure out what’s going wrong with the hosts, casts around talking about, “It’s as if the problem is spreading from host to host like a bacterial infection.” It’s a computer virus, even though the film was written two years before the appearance of the first computer virus.
Here’s a guy who’s very smart, Crichton, a polymath himself. Spent a lot of time thinking about technology and where things were going to go. In the era of Pong, he anticipated Grand Theft Auto. My wife, who’s the only person I’ve ever seen Grand Theft Auto and actually obey the traffic signals—Ford comments on this in episode four. He and his partner Arnold build the park with an eye toward open space. They built 100 happy storylines. And everyone went with the more sadistic, or at least the more self-aggrandizing experiences. Exercising power, as he says.
It seems to us, based on what’s happening with video games – almost all of which feature violence to some degree, almost all of which feature a sort of heroic story in which you conquer things – the uptake in the park for those narratives would be pretty high.
Question: We’re seeing a controversy around A.I. right now, but also around more basic things like social networks. The question is whether the people creating these are programming implicit biases into the algorithms, the way they sort content. When you look at the world, do you think of the big products that people use, like Google or Facebook, having implicit biases in them that maybe aren’t purposefully doing anything wrong, but potentially doing something harmful?
Jonah Nolan: Well, she and I aren’t on social.
Lisa Joy: Technically I’m an egg on Twitter. I have four followers. I think they’re bots. Or you guys.
Jonah Nolan: I think social is batshit crazy. My last show dealt a little more with this. Totalitarian regimes around the world struggled for decades to build—Raul Castro’s first job was to break down the biggest enemy of a totalitarian state, which at that point was what they called an “informal social network.” It’s vanishingly easy to figure out who your relations are, who your teachers were, who your co-workers are. But it was once very difficult to figure out who your friends were. It’s a very subtle thing. It doesn’t show up on a census form. The way Raul Castro cracked it in Cuba was he recruited a spy on every block to inform as to who was friends with whom. Dissident movements are difficult to figure out. It requires a lot of man-hours.
In America, where we don’t remember anything about totalitarian regimes, although one appears to be heading our way in about two months—hopefully not. But we decided to hand over that information.