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by   -   October 21, 2016

westworld-promo-hbo

For a sci-fi fan like me, fascinated by the nature of human intelligence and the possibility of building life-like robots, it’s always interesting to find a new angle on these questions. As a re-imagining of the original 1970s science fiction film set in a cowboy-themed, hyper-real adult theme park populated by robots that look and act like people, Westworld does not disappoint.

by   -   October 18, 2016

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HBO’s latest offering (on SkyAtlantic here in the UK) is an update of Michael Crichton‘s 1973 film Westworld; this time brought to us as a ten-part television series by sci-fi re-booter extraordinaire J.J. Abrams and screenwriter Jonathan Nolan (yes, brother and frequent collaborator of Christopher). The new Westworld comes with much hope (for HBO as a potential ‘new Game of Thrones’) and hype, understandably with the talent behind it having given us so much terrific science-fiction of late, including Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Interstellar.

As with Channel 4’s series Humans, broadcast last June (news on forthcoming series 2 here), Dreaming Robot’s offered a live Twitter commentary while the show was being broadcast in the UK, and I’ll take some time afterwards to write some reflective pieces on what we see in the show. (The Twitter ‘Superguide’ from @ShefRobotics can be seen here; my own @DreamingRobots Superguide can be seen here.)

Unsurprisingly, many of the themes in the Westworld reboot could also be seen in Humans. It seems, for example, that both shows express a certain anxiety, that as our machines become more human we humans seem to become less human, or humane. But this isn’t a new idea original to either show – this anxiety as been around as long as robots themselves, from the very invention of the term robot in the 1920s. And if we trace the history of robots in science fiction, we see a history of monsters that reflect this same fear, time and again, in slightly different contexts. Because the robot – which, remember, was invented in the popular imagination long before they were built in labs – is above all else exactly that, a perfect way of expressing this fear.

westworld-image1So, what are we looking at in this new, improved Westworld? (because frankly, the original film lacked the depth of even the first hour of this series, being just a very traditional Frankenstein narrative and rough draft for Crichton’s Jurassic Park, made 20 years later). First – as this nifty graphic on the right illustrates – we do see the robots in Westworld becoming more human. The programme starts with a voice asking the humanoid (very humanoid) robot, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), ‘Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?’ The questioner is exploring whether Dolores has become sentient, that is, aware of her own existence. The echo here with Descartes is clear. We all know about cogito, ergo sum – I think, therefore I am. But Descartes proposition isn’t just about thinking, it is about doubt.  He begins with the proposition that the act of doubting itself means that we cannot doubt, at least, our existence . So we would better understand Descartes’s proposition as dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum: I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am. If Dolores is found to be questioning the nature of her reality then that would be evidence for self-awareness and being, according to the Cartesian model.

The robots in Westworld are depicted as falling in love, maintaining strong family bonds, appreciating beauty, and consider the world in philosophical, reflective contexts. How much of this is merely programming and how much exceeds the limits imposed upon them by their human masters is the key question that the show teases its audience with, I suspect, though certainly, it occupies much of our attention in the first few hours. But if these moments – described as ‘reveries’ – are in any way genuine moments of creativity, then this is another category, beyond the notion of the cogito, that we might say the robots are becoming ‘alive’.

For many thinkers in the second-half of the twentieth century (for example, the post-Freudian psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott), it is only in such moments of creativity, or enjoying genuine moments of spontaneous being, that we truly discover the self and come alive. (The Freudian and post-Freudian influences on the narrative become even more apparent in subsequent episodes.) As response to late industrial capitalism (and the shock of fascism to the human self-conception as a rational animal), this idea emerged of human beings coming ‘alive’ only when we are not acting compliantly, that is, when we are acting spontaneously, or creatively, and not according to the laws or dictates (or ‘programming’) of another individual, organisation or group consciousness. We see this trend not only in a post-Freudian psychotherapy (e.g. Eric Fromm and the Frankfurt SchoolR. D. Laing) and other philosophical writings but also in the popular post-war subculture media, including advertising – the sort satirised in the ad for Westworld that opens the original film.

Other perspectives give us a glimpse into the robot’s moments of becoming human. Peter Abernathy, looking at a picture that offers a peek at the world outside, says: “I have a question, a question you’re not supposed to ask.” This is an allusion to Adam and Eve and the fruit of forbidden knowledge when humankind became self-aware of the difference between right and wrong. (Peter, after this, is consumed with rage at how he and his daughter have been treated.) And like Walter, the robot that goes on a psychotic killing spree, pouring milk over his victims, Peter is determined to ‘go off script’ and reclaim for himself a degree of agency and self-determination, acting according to his own, new-found consciousness instead of according to what others have programmed for him.

westworld2MEANWHILE, the human beings (‘newcomers’) in Westworld seem less ‘humane’ than their robot counterparts. The newcomers are shown to be sadistic, misogynist, psychopathic in the indulgence of their fantasies. One could argue that this behaviour is morally justifiable in the unreal world designed solely for the benefit of paying customers – that a ‘rape’, for example, in Westworld isn’t really ‘rape’ if it is done to a robot (who, by definition, cannot give nor deny consent), but this clearly is not how the audience is being invited to see these actions.

That human beings are becoming more like machines is an anxiety for which there is a long history of evidence, and even pre-dates the cultural invention of robots in the 1920s. We can see this anxiety in the Romantic unease with the consequences of Enlightenment that gave birth to the new, rational man, and of the industrial revolution, that was turning humans into nothing more than cogs in the steam-powered machines that so transformed the economy. This has been addressed in the Gothic tale of Frankenstein, still the basis for so many narratives involving robots, including the original Westworld film and, more recently, even our most contemporary stories such as Ex_Machinaand, to a lesser extent, in this manifestation of Westworld (which will be subject of a future post). (I have written and spoken on this theme myself many times, for example here and here).

So in Westworld, we meet Dr Ford – the mad scientist who creates the machines that will, inevitably, be freed upon the world. Dr Ford immediately reminds us of another Ford, the man whose name is synonymous with the assembly lines and a mode of production in the late industrial revolution that has done so much to dehumanise modern workforces. We see these methods of production and workers in the iconic film, which was contemporary with Henry Ford’s factories, Metropolis. (Though, as we shall see, this Ford is rather more complex…).

This fear reflects, too, that as post-Enlightenment humans become more rational, they become more like machines, acting in predictable, programmed ways, having lost the spontaneity and creativity of an earlier age. The humans of Westworld are exaggerations of the humans of our ‘Western’ world of rationalism, science and alienation. We don’t have to agree with this Romantic notion, that rationalism and science are negative forces in our world to accept that there is a great deal of anxiety about how rationalism and science are transforming individual human beings and our societies.

Rational dehumanisation is something personified in the actions of the corporation, which has replaced the mad-scientist as the frequent villain of the sci-fi Frankenstein-robot-twist (more to come on this in a future post) and we see hints in Episode 1 of what is to follow in Westworld, along the lines of film’s such as 2013’s The Machine, where the slightly misguided and naive actions of a scientist are only made monstrous when appropriated by a thoroughly evil, inhumane military-industrial complex.

This theme to address so succinctly in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, a major influence on the new Westworld, where the Tyrell Corporation boasts that their replicants are More Human Than Human. And in Blade Runner, too, we see humanoid robots behaving more humanely that the people that ruthlessly, rationally hunt down the machines. It is unclear, however, from the Tyrell slogan whether the robots are more human than the human because the technology has become so sophisticated, or because humans have fallen so low.

On Westworld as a whole, it is too early to tell if it will maintain its initial promise and be as monumentally successful as Game of Thrones, or as iconic as Blade Runner. But already this first episode has given us more to think about than the original, and undoubtedly the success and failure of the programme will be instructive.

If you liked this post, you may also want to read:

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interview by   -   August 6, 2016

Black-rhino-Yoki-WC

In this episode, Audrow Nash interviews Fredrik Gustafsson, Professor in Sensor Informatics at Department of Electrical Engineering in Linköping University, about an initiative to reduce poaching in a rhino sanctuary in Ngulia, Kenya. Gustafsson discusses how he first became involved in this project, how he has worked with the rangers to develop solutions, and the future of this work.

by and   -   April 18, 2016

engineering_still_needs_more_women-heroIt’s super hard to find skilled people willing to work for robotics companies in Silicon Valley. Even though robotics is awesome and going to change the world. Because big companies with big paychecks are stealing all the talent. So, you seriously can’t afford to overlook anyone. Yet, judging from the gender ratio at robotics companies, most are overlooking one huge potential talent pool.

interview by   -   August 21, 2015

Transcript included.

In this episode, Ron Vanderkley speaks with Dr. Eleanor Sandry of Curtin University about her new book Robots and Communication. In the interview, we explore human to animal communication and what we can learn from it; human to humanoid robots interaction; and human to non-humanoid robots interactions. Also, we discuss Western and Eastern perceptions of robotics.

by   -   August 19, 2014

A few of days ago, WIRED and Robohub covered a story about “Largest Swarm of Robots” and how self-organizing algorithms can be used by robots to form certain shapes. This inspired us to see what this networked, swarm of robots could mean for autonomous cars.

by   -   August 5, 2014
Image by Robert Lachenman
Image by Robert Lachenman

A couple of months ago, we asked our readers whether three different unlicensed groups of individuals should be able to ride in autonomous cars alone. The individuals were: a child under the legal driving age, a senior who is no longer licensed to drive, and a legally blind person.

One of the most interesting results from the poll was that people are not as supportive of having children ride the cars alone than they are about a senior or a blind person. Discussions that ensued from this with the Robohub editor, Hallie Siegel, was whether people’s sentiment will be different about a car that drives without a passenger, or a passenger who are drunk or under the influence of drugs.

Let us know what you think by answering the quick three questions below:

by   -   June 30, 2014

Tunnel_Problem-Okau_RoadYou are travelling along a single lane mountain road in an autonomous car that is approaching a narrow tunnel. You are the only passenger of the car.

by   -   June 25, 2014

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“When the American people, through their Congress, voted for a twenty-six-billion-dollar highway program, the most charitable thing to assume is that they hadn’t the faintest notion of what they were doing.” So warned Lewis Mumford in 1958, two years after the inauguration of the U.S. Interstate Highway system. “Within the next fifteen years,” Mumford added, “they will surely find out.” The following decades indeed proved Mumford right.

by   -   June 23, 2014

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Image credit: Craig Berry

Life and death decisions make interesting thought experiments. When you throw an autonomous car into the mix, things get even more interesting.

by   -   June 10, 2014

Tunnel_Problem-Okau_Road

Image source: Karora via Wikipedia.

There may be times when an accident or a death is unavoidable while an autonomous car is controlling the wheel.

What should an autonomous car do when such situation arises? How should the designers of the cars program them to respond? This week, we introduce the Tunnel Problem, which describes one such situation and has been a topic of serious debate for philosophers as well as those watching the technology carefully. Let us know what you think by participating in our poll.

by   -   June 9, 2014

speed_limit_cars_Speeding_ticket

Our previous poll, which asked (among other questions) whether kids should be allowed to ride in autonomous vehicles by themselves, revealed that responsibility is a key issue for most people. Are we concerned about who would be responsible when things go wrong? To prod at the issue of responsibility more deeply, in our most recent poll we asked how strictly an autonomous car should follow the speed limit, and if it gets a ticket for speeding, who should be held responsible.

by   -   May 29, 2014

robohub30

Learn more about Nate’s wacky life at his Website.

by   -   May 27, 2014

potus-motorcade

We conducted two polls last month in collaboration with the Open Roboethics initiative to get a sense of what people think about autonomous cars. Our polls started some interesting discussions around the topic of the emerging technology.

by   -   May 26, 2014

Girl_Driving_Car

Share your opinion and take our next reader poll: Should autonomous cars be allowed to speed?

Reader poll results: Earlier this month, when we asked people about your general thoughts on autonomous cars, we found that one of the main advantages of autonomous cars is that those who are not licensed to drive will be able to get to places more conveniently. This led us to wonder more about who should be able to drive an autonomous car.

We asked three questions through Robohub to find out more. Here’s what you, dear readers, have said.





INNOROBO 2015 Showcase
May 29, 2016


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