A brave new ‘Westworld’
Here are a few recent scientific announcements to ponder before you sitdown to watch HBO’s next ambitious, must-watch series, “Westworld,” premiering tonight.
Harvard University created the Octobot, described as an “adorable step toward the robot.” Employing three-dimensional printing and silicone gel, the flexible, rubbery body has no batteries or rigid parts. Instead, chemicals course through its veins to give it power.
Bio-engineers at the same university also created a tiny stingray-inspired robot, fusing heart cells from rats to asilicone body and added a gene that reacts to blue light. They were then able to control it by using pulses of blue light. “It’s not an organism per se, but it’s certainly alive,” a scientist told The New York Times.
Meanwhile, lifelike androids are greeting shoppers in Japan, and lastweek it was announced that a baby with threesets of DNA was born.
You can ask Suri about it.
These stories barely scratch the surface of how far robotics and artificial intelligence has come since 1973. That was when the late author-filmmaker Michael Crichton made the original “Westworld.” The first-time director wanted to put some computerized images into the film, but found the special-effects houses didn’t have the technology. So he approached the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena with its giant mainframe computers, and after a long, arduous process Crichton — who died in 2008 at 66 — happily got his couple of minutes of CGI.
It was “remarkable in 1973 — and a cliche seven years later,” the author wrote on his website, MichaelCrichton.com, which is still maintained, noting the rapidity of technological advances.
Crichton conceived “Westworld” as “a movie about people acting out movie fantasies.” Throughout his career, the writer often told tales of technology gone awry. He was interested in primitive robots, such as Abraham Lincoln at Disneyland, and people becoming more machinelike and machines more human.
HBO’s fascinating reimagining of “Westworld” takes that premise a lot further. So has our world. Richard Yonck — author of “Heart of the Machine: Our Future in a World of Artificial Emotional Intelligence” — told the New York Times recently that because of giant leaps in computing starting about a decade ago, “We’re now developing emotional computing and software programs that are aware of our moods and intentions and are able to respond accordingly.”
So, if artificial intelligence is already anticipating our desires, when does it start anticipating its own? That is one of the questions the new “Westworld” dives into.
Like the original, the series seemingly takes place in the near future, at the amusement park that is meant to safely immerse the guests into a world modeled after an old Western movie. It’s a place filled with lifelike beings there to service their human masters. What could go wrong?
The elaborately mounted and impressive 10-part series is from executive producers Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy and J.J. Abrams and stars Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton and Jeffrey Wright.
Part of what the show questions is how we define what life is, says writer-producer Lisa Joy (“Burn Notice”). If they can both feel, does it matter if something is a human with synapses and a DNA code or an artificial being “coded with zeros and ones”?
“It’s a constant examination about that line where consciousness begins and ends,” says Joy.
“Westworld” is also about what makes us human, adds Nolan. The guests “can indulge in any whim, no matter how noble or dark that they want, apparently without consequence,” he notes, asking, “Who are we when the lights are off? Who are we when we don’t think anyone’s keeping score?”
The series is violent, and like HBO’s “Game of Thrones” has “adult content.” Also like with “GoT,” there’s already been some backlash over the sex and violence in “Westworld.”
Thandie Newton, who plays one of the hosts — a madam at the local brothel — says, “The show throws up so many existential questions about the nature of being human, and do these hosts actually end up reflecting us more perfectly than we are?”
Hopkins’ “Westworld” character — Dr. Robert Ford, the eccentric creator of the hosts — keeps introducing new wrinkles into them to make them more lifelike. But as the series opens, he and the park’s staff are finding erratic behavior in the hosts. Residual bits of past programs are seeping through despite having had their memories wiped.
Go into a “deep and dreamless slumber,” Ford tells the hosts to shut them down.
That comment brings to mind the fact that five years before the original “Westworld,” famed sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick published the novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” which became the basis for the film “Blade Runner.”
James Marsden, Evan Rachel Wood in “Westworld” on HBO.