Westworld: Exploring AI Theory and Philosophy by Sheldon Lee Compton

The Turing Test: A test developed by Alan Turing in 1950, of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.

One would be well served to be aware of this test before watching HBO’s series Westworld. Or, at the very least, have some understanding of the impact it has had on the philosophy of artificial intelligence. That’s the first impression. On the other hand, if one chose not to look into it, there will certainly be enough old west gunfights, heroes, and heroines to keep most viewers entertained. And enough science fiction and philosophy to keep those on the fence back in their seat.

The general concept of the show stays true to the idea first set out in the novel that the film and the show are based on – an eccentric inventor creates an old west theme park populated with AI that are as lifelike as humans. The AI slowly become aware of their true nature. Fantastic revolution ensues.

Expanding on Turing’s early work with machine intelligence, Westworld explores the question of where does consciousness come from and why. It’s heady stuff, but that’s where the show invites us to go at its highest level of creative power. Since we’re going into such heady space, let’s go all out and have a Q&A session of our own with one of the main characters, Bernard Lowe. You will want to imagine actor Jeffrey Wright as we continue. Wright (Basquiat, The Hunger Games, Casino Royale) plays the role to perfection.

Split Screen: Let’s start with an introduction. Tell us a little about yourself.

Bernard Lowe: (Pulls glasses off and cleans them slowly). What would you like to know?

SS: Anything. Start anywhere.

BL: I am the head of the Westworld Programming Division and creator of artificial people, known as hosts.

SS: Is that it? Nothing else you want to tell us?

BL: I have no clear urge to tell you anything at all, but we’re talking…so…

SS: Fair enough. Who is your boss? Who runs Westworld?

BL: (Expressionless). Robert Ford, Founder and Creative Director. Or would you prefer I refer to him as Anthony Hopkins, star of such films as The Silence of the Lambs, Amistad, and Legends of the Fall, among others?

SS: Perhaps Robert Ford will suffice. Hopkins is a pretty well known actor, after all.

BL: Of course. Yes, of course. Though I should tell you that my son died, you know. There was nothing I could do. Nothing anyone could do. It was simply meant to happen.

SS: Now, now let’s concentrate, Bernard.

BL: And what exactly is Westworld? A theme park, I’ve been told.

SS: That’s right, Bernard. You build hosts for the park. Humans, but not humans.

BL: Humans but not? What do you mean, human but not? Where is my son?

SS: Let’s take a break, Bernard.

(Bernard seems to lose focus and drift into a quiet reverie).

To go much more into our talk with Bernard would be to offer up some significant spoilers. You should know, though, that Jeffrey Wright has that role down to a science. Bernard Lowe acts as Robert Ford’s right-hand man, his closest friend and ally, one he confides in while at the same time offering others in the company nothing but obscure and clever mini-riddles.

We’re in luck. Here’s Ms. Dolores Abernathy, the oldest host in the park, who is played by Evan Rachel Wood (The Wrestler, True Blood, Across the Universe).

Split Screen: So you’re the oldest host in the park. Is that right?

Dolores Abernathy: (In a noticeable southern accent). What do you mean?

SS: You can drop the accent, Dolores.

DA: (Dolores’s face goes slack for a moment, then she smiles). What do you mean host? (She is now speaking in a flat Midwestern accent).

SS: Okay, let’s stick a pin in that. How do you feel about the world you live in?

DA: Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world. The disarray. I choose to see the beauty.

SS: Very good, Dolores. Can you tell me, what is your itinerary?

DA: No, I don’t believe I can. I’m a bit confused.

SS: Okay, that’s enough. Go offline, Dolores.

(Dolores’s pleasant features go suddenly slack. Her face could not be more emotionless).

There are so many beautifully imagined characters in this show I couldn’t possibly spend time with all of them, but you should know there are no boring moments. There’s the visitor who has been coming to the park since it opened who is known only as The Man in Black.  This character is played with a black foreboding by the great Ed Harris (Pollock, The Right Stuff, The Hours).

So the overall concept is solid, yes, but it’s the characters that raise this show to the level of art. It doesn’t hurt that it’s beautifully shot and expertly scripted, either.

Closing thought: Westworld the show goes above and beyond the book or film that inspired it. By using the storyline and characters to make a full-scale exploration into consciousness and its intangible qualities, viewers will be treated to something entirely unique, a rare thing in television these days.

Sheldon Lee Compton

Sheldon Lee Compton is a novelist, short story writer, editor, and columnist. He is the author of three books – the collections The Same Terrible Storm (Foxhead Books, 2012), Where Alligators Sleep (Foxhead Books, 2014), and the novel Brown Bottle (Bottom Dog Press, 2016). In 2012, he was a finalist for both the Gertrude Stein Fiction Award and the Still Fiction Award. The Same Terrible Storm was nominated for the Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Excellence in Appalachian Writing, while his short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, Best of the Web, and cited in Best Small Fictions 2015 and Best Small Fictions 2016, guest edited by Robert Olen Butler and Stuart Dybek, respectively. Other writing has appeared in the anthologies Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia (Bottom Dog Press, 2010), Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden from Contemporary Appalachia (Ohio University Press, 2015), and Larry Fessenden’s Sudden Storm: A Wendigo Reader (Fiddleblack, 2016). He is the past founder and editor of four literary journals and is currently the founding editor of the online flash fiction journal The Airgonaut.



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