Westworld is us

I pitched an article about Westworld to The Conversation and they REJECTED it. Here are some notes towards that unwritten article. There are at least three ideas in here. Spoilers.

A lot has been said about Westworld but the ideas in the show go well beyond facile considerations of the ethics of AI((The major overt discussion in the show is over whether the hosts are conscious. Yet there is little consideration for refraining from harming the hosts, even if they have not achieved the unified mind of a conscious human. The obvious parallel is with animals. As Jeremy Benthem pointed out about a million years ago now, the relevant point is capacity for suffering, not sentience. Indeed the images of hosts’ dismembered corpses being hosed down by workers in plastic overalls is all too redolent of abattoirs. If we ever create things like hosts, it would be deeply, Nazi-ishly immoral to enslave them in any way. Whether they had real self-awareness or not they feel distress, as much as any non-human animal. If the idea of a machine feeling pain shocks you, you need to learn more about what we’re made of. See above.)). They actually concern the basis of consciousness, beauty and life. Westworld is in fact the latest instance of the Nolan brothers’ explorations of reality as the only source of real wonder.

Westworld never veers into the supernatural, but investigates the edge of plausibility. In this sense it recognises that the most strange, unintuitive ideas actually come from reality as revealed by science. The Nolan brothers’ output provides what I think is a body of work representative of the aesthetic of modern science. In a world denuded of superstition and magical explanation, scientific investigations reveal a world that is more wonderful and strange than what folklore, religion and fantasy have supposed. The relativistic effects and warping of spacetime in Interstellar((For Interstellar the physicist Kip Thorne was involved from the beginning of the project (thanks to the visionary producer Linda Obst) and indeed the science is always at the edge of plausibility, but never falls off into nonsense.)), the real magic of The Prestige, the non-supernatural superheroes of The Dark Knight Trilogy and the lucid dreams of Inception all tread the line between what is frightening and delightful to watch, and also the line between what is strange but still plausibly real((Incidentally, Borges claimed there were only four devices in all fantastic literature: work within a work (Westworld), dream invades reality (Inception), the voyage in time (Interstellar), the double (The Prestige). That’s fantastic, not magical realism, by the way, which is often quite lame. I think because it offers magical stuff that’s way less impressive than real stuff. Also, for Borges fans, the maze is of course a labyrinth too.)).

An example in Westworld of this strange/plausible tension is the emergence of conscious beings. The hosts’ (the show’s name for realistic human-like AIs) “awakening” is not only a plausible exploration of Julian Jaynes’ somewhat eccentric but un-disprovable theory of the bicameral mind, but a mirror of our own experience.

The central scene of the whole series is in episode 4 when Maeve, a host played perfectly by Thandie Newton, essentially starts to lucid dream, to realise that her reality is confected. But lucid dreaming is also an apt metaphor for Jaynes’ and other contemporary theories of consciousness (like Dan Dennett’s). Consciousness is a heuristic, glitchy, tenuous phenomenon (more so than people realise because our brain papers over the gaps) and once we become aware of that, it is like we’re lucid dreaming in a body that was constructed to be doing things unconsciously.

Later in that episode Maeve is confronted with her origins. She finds out that she is a designed machine. And yet that’s what we are. Maeve’s experience is really our own experience of the knowledge of our provenance((There are antecedents  to this story even before 20th century scifi. The golem of Prague, Pinocchio, Ovid’s Pygmalion and of course Frankenstein. But here in Westworld there ain’t no wonder tissue. No vital spark, soul, midichlorians, or any other bullshit. The hosts are conscious because of completely non-supernatural reasons, the same reasons — plausibly at least — that we are.)). If you haven’t already I suggest looking into what are the fundamental components of living organisms((Check out The Machinery of Life by David Goodsell. It blew my mind.))including ourselves. Inside each of our cells is a whole metropolis of micro-machines busily going about their complex tasks, synthesising proteins, carrying materials from one part of a cell to another and, of course, copying, proofreading and executing DNA. It is for some a terrifying revelation that prompts a vertiginous plunge into a recognition of the baselessness of the self: merely a concatenation of trillions of cells inside of which are thousands of autonomous, unthinking molecular machines. It does seem to unweave the rainbow. But for many of us what I think is the appropriate reaction is evoked. How extraordinary is it that we thinking, dreaming,  loving, AI-inventing beings can arise from a congeries of chemical reactions? Apprised of these facts one is struck by the paucity of superstitious beliefs in élan vital, soul, spirit, quintessence. Ditto for consciousness. It’s way more incredible that a bunch of neurons working in parallel are able to manifest a self-aware, highly sentient being than that some vital spark was imputed to us by a creator or some vague substance called mind.

So the hosts’ awakening — realising they’re a machine without a ghost — is actually the same astonishing realisation people undergo when prompted by modern science’s insistence that we too are highly complex designed machines, albeit designed by Darwinian evolution. If we look with horror at the plight of the now sentient hosts, we see a metaphor, not only for treatment of dehumanised people, but also of our own situation.

The breakdown of the bicameral mind, according to Jaynes, occurred when the voices of gods — auditory hallucinations that impelled humans to do important things — were replaced by an inner monologue such that our conscious selves became the impetus for deliberation and action. In the final episode of the season Dolores is asked, “Do you know now who you’ve been talking to? Whose voice you’ve been hearing? All this time?” In a powerful, climactic moment the voice is revealed to be sitting down opposite: it is an avatar of herself, ready to begin the conversation that we modern people call thinking. Once that loop is closed it is recursive and infinite, so that the self becomes the self-reinforcer and the way to consider self-awareness.

The hosts, then, are in a sense programmed to become self-determined. This seems like a paradox but isn’t. Again, we are programmed to be self-determined. It takes a huge amount of “programming” (billions of years of evolutionary exploration of the space of possible gene vehicles) to arrive at something complex enough to be able to do any programming itself. For Jaynes, self-awareness co-developed with a cultural concept of self. These two things intertwined and bootstrapped themselves up, using language, to the much more meta, self-reflective sentience we now have. We are at the level of being so conscious we even know the limitations and something of the character of conscious thought.

The final point to make, one often made in Western and Eastern metaphysics, is that the self is an illusion, a confabulation that serves merely to consolidate a biography for navigating the world and leads inexorably to egotism, various neuroses and an incurable lust for power. Well, true enough I’m sure. But Dan Dennett’s point here is salutary. Yes the self is a fiction, just like a centre of gravity is a useful fiction for physicists. And what a fiction! It is the glory of selves that they are constructed and yet can do so much, like contemplate themselves and others.