A brave new ‘West­world’

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FEA­TURES - By Rob Low­man South­ern Cal­i­for­nia News Group

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.”

PHOTO BY JOHN P. JOHN­SON/HBO

James Marsden, Evan Rachel Wood in “West­world” on HBO.

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