Although the fear of being overtaken and eventually annihilated by Artificial Intelligence is causing more fear with every decade we get closer to perfecting artificial life, there are more pressing questions and concerns one must seek out and understand. Westworld, the brand new show on HBO that has been sweeping audiences with its gripping character studies and action-packed episodes, shows what can happen if we let artificial intelligence become too aware of themselves. What I would like to unpack is the philosophy and psychology of this show, not the impending doom of being wiped out by Artificial Intelligence.
Artificial Intelligence has been a topic of interest with writers and thinkers alike. What does it mean and what can happen if AI outsmarts the top of the food chain? But more than that, can AI ever become sentient like we are? Can they learn, comprehend, and discern like we do or is that an impossibility? Psychology dictates that many animals have the ability to understand and discern language, but this is a hot-button topic that is under criticism. If animals, in theory, can understand and reply to us using sign language, can we program an artificial being to do the same thing? Is it possible that we can assign then emotions that they can use to their advantage and maybe one day understand those emotions? The way I understand and feel sadness could not possibly be the same way a highly advanced AI could understand it, or could it? In Westworld, the hosts of the amusement park are assigned narratives, emotions, and a set of skills that would suit them the best and act accordingly. In this world, nothing is real so everything is permitted. The paying guests can go on killing sprees, and have sex with whoever they please. The guests are not always there to do just those two main human deeds: many of them want to seek out the story and live it, if only briefly. In a world that is far away from their own, there are no rules to follow if you pay the right price. Although this idea sounds too far away from where we are with robotics, it’s not as far off as we think. We are building more advanced robots every day, hardware that understands language, so an artificial being is not off the table in this lifetime. Think of Siri or Alexa, they understand what you are asking based on an algorithm. Can that evolve in our lifetime? Does that scare or only make you more curious? Could you find out who you really were by living out your fantasies in an imaginary world?
With the ideas that I have been flinging around, I think it is time to begin exploring the meat of this discussion: the philosophy and psychology of Westworld. The main philosophical idea is probably the most obvious and pertinent, and that is the Cave Allegory. The Cave Allegory was originally discussed in Plato’s The Republic where Socrates, Plato, and his brother discussed a world in which we are all born in a cave, never knowing what is on the outside but only being fed what the puppet-masters give us. Indeed, this literal puppet-masters would make shadow puppets of a simulated world for those in the cave, which would be the only information the cave dwellers would know. Most were completely docile and content with the lives they were living, but a fair few knew that there was more outside. When one began to escape, he ventured into the light, which he had never seen before. The sun, so bright, blinded him so that he could not see. The truth, was so devastatingly blinding that he decided to return into his quarters and live a life as if he were ignorant of the truth. Those who ventured out, would see the world for what is really was, and how it was controlled. These puppet-masters were no gods, they were men tinkering with the fragile emotions of humankind, manipulating and molding it as they saw fit. Those who ventured out may have stayed out of the cave to brave this truth and live an adjusted life, or they would simply revert back. The AI in Westworld have that choice as well, but unless they are programmed to be rebellious and see the world outside their own, they go about their day according to their algorithm, completely ignorant to what is really going on. The purpose of their existence.
Movies like The Matrix and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind play with the idea of purpose and memories. In The Matrix, The Cave Allegory is in full-bloom. Neo, a computer hacker, gets caught up with two people, Trinity and Morpheus, who want to show him what the world really is. It is a giant simulator in which we live the life that we are currently living: completely ignorant to the truth that is just out of our reach. When Neo agrees to take the pill that will show him the truth that is the act of leaving the cave and verging into the light, the truth that blinds us. Much like what Maeve, played by Thandie Newton, ends up doing. She has these persistent memories of being taken away by men in masks and she is so haunted by it that she decides to keep hurting herself to go back into the facility to see what is really going on. The facility acts as a dream world for the AI. The behavioural experts wake up the AI in the facility and tell them they are in a dream while assessing their recent and past behaviour. Maeve begins to become more aware and conscious of what is really going on and who she really is. She finds out the horror of reality and begins to overtake the facility to make it work for her.
When comparing the show to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Westworldplays with inserting memories into the AI’s software so they seem more human and have more emotions. They take full advantage of erasing memories when needed, but the problem is that there is always a trace that is left and one way or another, some AI will find out and begin revolting. Playing with memories even with something as simple but advanced as a robot may still affect them. Maeve is the case in point, she has flashbacks to memories that she is not sure how they ended up in her head, and she brushes them off as dreams, but as the story and truth begin to unravel, she finds out the truth. This was her past life before she was reprogrammed. Although this is science fiction, we must not discount the power of false and implanted memories in humans.
Implanting memories is one of the easiest and most malicious ways to control people into believing what you want them to believe. Albeit innocuous enough. If a parent, friend, or loved one says with conviction that when you were in grade 5 you wore a yellow sweater with red pants and you peed yourself in front of your class, you might shake it off, but the more they bring it up and bring in more relevant information, the more likely you are willing to believe and you will start ‘remembering’ the false event. Another example is one that can be incriminating as an eye-witness testimony. Most eye-witness testimonies are false not only because of the amount of time between the incident and the court date but also because of what other eye-witnesses or professionals are telling you what happened that day. If one day you and seven others witness a horrific car accident involving a red convertible hitting a white minivan, and when the police arrive on the scene and begin questioning each of you, it soon turns into the Telephone Game – a simple game in which one person whispers a phrase to another person, and that person relays what they thought they heard, until it comes back to the original person, likely being whispered a very different phrase – because in the event where a sudden mass of things happen, one can have trouble remembering what actually happened. Thus, some witnesses may have seen a yellow truck hitting a white minivan or a black sedan hitting a red truck. But if the first witness gives the wrong information and sounds convincing when telling their account, more often than not, the other witnesses will have claimed to have seen the same thing. Of course, we are also talking about harmony in a group, but the immense influence of the group and false memories is truly stunning. In the case of Westworld, memories are easily programmed and deprogrammed whenever behavioural specialists see fit. There is no consideration of morals or ethics because they are dealing with literal objects. It is incredibly easy to shape and mold the mind of a robot because it is yours to shape. It is yours to create in your image or someone else’s. The power to give an object some semblance of ‘real’ emotion without having to really suffer from guilt or pain. You can give the object a devastating backstory with memories alluding to the kidnap, torture, and murder of their family without having to feel it yourself.
The catharsis of visiting Westworld is to live out the basics of human functionality without the repercussions. The philosophical idea of nothing is true; everything is permitted is a gleaming example that one can truly do whatever they desire. But the only desires of humans, it seems, is to fuck and kill. Most visitors of Westworld only have that in mind and they do not participate in any other activity. But the mass appeal of the amusement park is that you are in an immersive world where you can do anything you can dream of. The act of killing and engaging in sex is in our reptilian brain, the small part of our brain, right above the brain stem, in which our basic desires live. The desire to eat, drink, procreate, and kill for safety or food. We do not think like that anymore because in some ways we are more sophisticated than that. When we are immersed in a world which not real and everything is permitted, often the first thing we do is relinquish the need to kill and the want to have sex with all the willing women. Although the visitors are not killing for the hunt or to protect themselves and they are not having sex to procreate, they are living out the desires they believe they are owed. In a world that is becoming increasingly politically correct every day, there is an outlet where they can kill whoever/whatever they want and fuck anything that has legs without the repercussions of modern society. What a utopia! A world in which does not exist so sex-and-murdering-hungry people can live out their very real desires. Human psychology is conundrum in many ways, but also simple to crack.
Although there is much to talk about the sweeping show, Westworld, there will be more to uncover in the much-anticipated second season where we will see the consequences of anarchy. The philosophy and psychology in the show are basic yet effective. Anything from anything is permitted if it is not real, to false memories, to realizing the truth and needing to break out. These are ideas that many forms of media have played with and although it is a difficult concept to pack into one story, it is the most rewarding to watch unfold. Perhaps one day we can have this philosophical conversation with AI and marvel at their answers.