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Monday, October 3, 2016

Westworld 1.1: Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick Served Up by Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy and J. J. Abrams

If you're talking about AI science fiction - robots or androids programmed to convincingly think and act like humans, or almost like humans, or more than humans - you've got to start with Isaac Asimov and his three laws of robotics:  (1) a robot can never harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow injury to befall a human, (2) a robot must follow all orders given to it by a human, except if such orders conflict with the first law, and (3) a robot should always act to preserve its own existence, except when following this third law would conflict with the first two.  Thus, a robot ordered by a human to dismantle itself must follow that order, unless the robot knows that the human giving such as order was set to commit suicide, a suicide which the robot not dismantled could prevent.  (This is not an exact quotation of Asimov's presentation of the three laws, but my own statement of them, with explanatory example.)

Now, Asimov was a fiction writer, a story teller, and one of the best all-time writers at that.  So, the only reason why he formulated the three laws was to provide the foundation of an exciting story in which, for some reason, the laws were broken.  A human is found murdered in a locked room, with a robot standing by, with blood on its arm, which indicates that the arm bludgeoned the human.  What happened?

Asimov didn't deal that much with the tricky nature of consciousness and sentience, but Philip K. Dick did, in a series of short stories and novels that stretched to the limits our understanding of how we understand sentience, and often put those stories in the brains of androids, as in Blade Runner.   Indeed, more movies and television shows have been made from Philip K. Dick's work than any other author, and most of them have been superb and pathbreaking.

So, when I say that Westworld, based on its first episode, is a combination of Asimov and Dick, served up by Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy, and J. J. Abrams, that's high praise indeed.

The HBO series goes so far beyond the 1973 movie, which was very enjoyable but much less sophisticated, that the new series could have been titled differently and that would have been fine. The androids in the Westworld and related amusement parks begin to malfunction in the movie, killing the guests, but the emphasis is on the action, rather than the metaphysics of the androids.   In the HBO show, this ratio is reversed, and the first episode sets up all kinds of reasons for what may be happening - androids who want to break out of their dream, i.e., programming.

Among the most interesting is the possibility that repeated "builds" or programming sets may be leaking into one another, with the result that the oldest androids might be experiencing an unintended synergistic mixing of programming with unforeseen consequences.   And, to be clear, by oldest I don't mean the androids that look oldest, but the androids that are oldest, as in  having been created first.  In other words, in the series, beauty's only skin deep in all kinds of ways - or maybe it isn't only skin deep in more ways than we can or can't imagine.

I'm not going to review the action all that much in this series.  But I'll be here with metaphysic disquisitions whenever I can.


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