Image: HBO

How HBO’s 'Westworld' Diverges from the Original Movie

HBO's 'Westworld' is driven by the philosophy and psychology of artificial intelligence.

Sep 20 2016, 1:00pm

Image: HBO

Imagine Jurassic Park, but instead of genetically modified dinosaurs, you have artificially intelligent robots who have been developed to sate the desires of wealthy tourists. What could possibly go wrong?

A prototype for the one with the dinosaurs, this is the plot of Michael Crichton's 1973 film Westworld. By now you may have heard that HBO will debut a modern update of the original movie in October. Executive produced by J.J. Abrams and written/produced by Jonathan and Lisa Joy Nolan (writer of The Dark Knight, Memento and Pushing Daisies), and with a cast including Anthony Hopkins, James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood, it is already creating quite a stir online.

This isn't the first time that Westworld has been tackled as a series. Three years after it debuted in cinemas, an incredibly camp movie called Futureworld took the theme park to Mars, and the humanoids cloned humans only to dispose of them and steal their lives back on Earth. And J.J. Abrams has been so keen to develop Westworld as a series that he's had the project on the backburner for the best part of 20 years.

What is interesting is how we predict AI. Regardless of whether our predictions are academic or purely speculative, the conclusions drawn are remarkably similar. AI is in a constant state of being imagined 15-20 years into the future, which allows for a certain creativity for the showrunners if both scientists and Hollywood are speculating with the same degree of accuracy.

The 1973 Westworld movie saw a theme park divided into three zones that catered to decadence, violence, and indulgence without ramifications in the manufactured world of Delos. There was Roman World, for bacchanalian debauchery; Medieval World, for jousting, mead, and those silly cone hats with chiffon in them; and finally West World, a gun-slinging, whiskey guzzling sandstorm of saloons, prostitutes, and shootouts.

The park is populated with sophisticated humanoids where visitors pay $1,000 per day for the luxury of doing whatsoever they please to the robots. The narrative doesn't encourage its audience to ask if the robots feel or think. We know that they are as intelligent as humans, and the technicians admit that they don't fully understand how the robots work—which sets us up for the chaos that ensues. As the robots begin to malfunction, the technicians continue to exploit them rather than take them out of service to investigate potential flaws. It's the time honored story of profit before safety. When the rogue Gunslinger deviates from what he's been designed to do, it isn't really explicit that he is making a stand for the robots, or if he is simply experiencing a glitch. Ultimately, the questions it asks aren't driven by ethics; they are about system failures and man's innate desire to create technology that can be bound by human control.

From the trailer for 2016's Westworld, it is clear that different questions are being asked. Billed as "a dark odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the evolution of sin", it seems to have a tighter grip on tech than the original. Rather than considering how one might theoretically control an AI/human environment more successfully, the update seems to focus on the ethics of developing AI to feel as humans feel, and consider a future where we feel empathy when human-made machines are being exploited. It's an interesting take, and a timely one. Nolan said of the robots in a recent interview: "The 'hosts' are discovering that they've been created in our image, but beginning to question if 'humanness' is really what they want to aspire to. And given their circumstances, it's easy to understand why they start to question whether they want to be like us at all..."

The current incarnation of Westworld, then, seems more driven by the philosophy and psychology of AI, and how we interact with tech that is driven by society.

We are now at a point where the traditional sci-fi narrative of autonomous technology and the loss of human control has folded into our everyday experience as technology plays an increasingly important role in human social interactions. We read news stories about sex toys that send details to their manufacturer whenever they are used, where your Thermostat can be targeted by ransomware, holding your heating hostage in exchange for Bitcoin, where chat bots can have conversations with each other that question existence, faith and desire physicality. Obviously we can expect the titillation that has become de rigueur for HBO, but it's interesting to see a star studded show question the intersection of technology, consciousness and ethics.

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