Questioning the Nature of Reality: Watching “Westworld”

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William: “Are you real?”
Angela: “Well, if you can’t tell, does it matter?”

This exchange between a human “guest” named William and an android “host” called Angela is at the heart of the popular HBO television series “Westworld” that has aired two seasons and was recently renewed for a third. Based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 science fiction cult classic, the original film took place in a futuristic Western-themed amusement park, where the android entertainers malfunction and have many of the park’s human visitors running for their lives.

In the television series, it’s a similar setting but the “malfunction” appears to be the emergence of consciousness, which provides ample opportunity to dive deep into a number of vexing philosophical questions — the main one being: what exactly is “consciousness”? “Westworld” presents a vision of the future in which androids appear so lifelike they are virtually indistinguishable from humans. Can a machine experience something just like human consciousness — or does it (even in an extremely impressive way) only mimic its appearance? Given all the apparent complexity of human consciousness, can it be reduced to lines of code, where every individual is effectively a different program? If so, would a machine experience the self and the world in the same manner as a person does? While the online “Westworld” fan base loves speculating about the potential directions the series could take, within its endgame appears to be: can fully consciousness artificially intelligent beings coexist with humans, and perhaps more importantly — would they want to?

A major challenge in any discussion of consciousness is the multiple definitions we have for it, which makes it problematic as a scientific concept (even among scientists). Consciousness is commonly used to mean “thinking,” “perception,” “awareness,” or “ideology” — and even at times “morality” when used in the context of having a “conscience” — all of which we view as decidedly different phenomena. What makes “Westworld” a compelling watch is that the questions that surround consciousness come from robots that express themselves emotionally with remarkable nuance — no doubt due to the impressive acting talents of Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton (who are identified as hosts from the start of the series). No spoilers here, part of the fun is figuring out who is human and who is host — you’ll have to watch to find out.

The creators of “Westworld” clearly want the audience to identify with the hosts, not only because of the dilemma that this emergence of consciousness brings, but also due to their treatment by the mysterious Delos corporation and the park’s guests (who seemingly have free range over the androids — remember the theme park takes place in the Wild West). In a recent talk at the video game industry conference E3, “Westworld” co-creator Jonathan Nolan stated we’re a long way from the future portrayed in “Westworld” and he doesn’t necessarily see it as our potential future. “I think we’ll be lucky if the future looks like ‘Westworld’ … We’re headed into the gap in which we’ve allowed algorithmic intelligence to drive more and more of our experiences and our lives. The data is starting to take control.”

Nolan is concerned that data does not have a “conscience” and therefore we should be concerned not with artificial intelligence but “artificial morality” — without this in mind, we are left with an “artificial stupidity” for our human well-being. As in many other science fiction portrayals, the seemingly conscious, artificially intelligent android creations in “Westworld” have their own agendas in mind — ones that their human creators did not expect, let alone plan for.

While in real life our technology has not yet advanced enough for Nolan’s concern, the greater philosophical quandary that “Westworld” poses is the nature of consciousness itself. “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” is a question that recurs throughout the series, and applies equally to host and human alike. “Westworld” will ask you to spend some time engrossed in this fundamental inquiry, and perhaps even enjoy the question, from time to time, outside of the “park” as well.

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