Warning: There are spoilers ahead for “Westworld.”
The INSIDER Summary:
• Hosts in “Westworld” are spreading an idea of consciousness.
• This idea of a “contagion” in artificial intelligence is nothing new.
• We spoke to a robotics expert to learn more.
The second episode of “Westworld” made a significant leap when it came to explaining “glitches” in the robotic hosts’ programming. One of the programming employees, Elsie, expressed concerne to Bernard about Peter Abernathy (the host who went “crazy” in the premiere).
“Let me at least pull the hosts who had contact with him,” Elsie asks Bernard. “Like the daughter — Dolores. Because if this is not a dissonant episode, then whatever Abernathy had could be contagious. So to speak.”
Bernard denies the request, explaining that Dolores was examined and cleared. But in the scene immediately following this exchange, we watch as Dolores seems to “infect” another host with “consciousness” by repeating what might be a trigger phrase: “These violent delights have violent ends.”
The show’s co-creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy attended a “Westworld” panel at New York Comic Con on October 9, and they were asked directly about this phrase and it’s significance in the second episode.
“This episode brought up the possibility of contagion,” moderator Eric Goldman said. “Seems like we might have a sort of trigger?”
“That’s pure speculation,” Nolan replied after a brief pause.
“I will say I don’t think that’s the last time we’ll hear that phrase,” Joy added.
The mystery of where this trigger phrase (if that’s what it is) originated aside, we were very curious about the concept of consciousness as a virus or contagion. INSIDER spoke with Christopher Atkeson, a professor at the Robotics Institute and Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, to learn more.
Atkeson began by reminding us that the market for simulated consciousness already exists. Products like Amazon Echo or iPhones have downloaded “personalities” in the form of Alexa and Siri — programs designed to speak to you as if they are a human assistant.
So we already are beginning to experiment with crafting and spreading consciousness through smart phones and home assistants, but those products begin with a human touch.
“You could ask the question, ‘Could it happen without people?'” Atkeson tells INSIDER. “So now we’re in the territory of what is called ‘computer worms‘ or ‘bots,’ another term is a ‘Trojan horse.’ The basic idea is there’s a piece of software on your computer that — either because it was programmed to or because it figured it out — discovers how to communicate with another computer and so-called ‘infect it’ with a piece of software.”
Atkeson stressed that this is not a hypothetical situation — we’re living in a world where artificial intelligence or computer programs are already capable of spreading software on their own.
“The whole spam industry is, to some extent, built off this,” Atkeson says. “[People] don’t buy computers to send you spam, they infect other peoples’ computers which then send you spam […] It’s not hypothetical, it’s already happening. And if instead of sending spam it was sending consciousness, boom. There you go, you’re spreading consciousness everywhere.”
Fiction enters this concept in “Westworld” when it comes to the development of consciousness in artificial intelligence. We haven’t excelled in robotics the way Dr. Ford and his fictional Westworld team of programmers have, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t headed in that direction.
“So can we have complicated programs that know and understand? Yes, we already do,” Atkeson says. “Can we have programs that replicate themselves and travel over a network? Yes, we already do. But the only thing that’s missing is we don’t really know how to replicate consciousness. But we will, there’s a huge market for it.”
How robotics experts like Atkeson define and identify “consciousness” is a subjective discussion we’ll save for another post, but we know the “Westworld” creators have spent a large amount of time dwelling on this. How do you decide whether artificial intelligence has reached a level of consciousness akin to humans? When do you decide to assign “personhood” to a robot?
“We’re already living in a world of artificial intelligence — it’s just you’re not seeing a robot, you’re seeing a smartphone,” Joy said in an HBO clip about the realities of AI. “You think ‘Oh this is a small leap, a small advance,’ but if you look at everything in aggregate, we are moving towards a place where we’ve uploaded our lives and our thoughts. There’s a cost to that.”
Nolan has similar concerns about the rapid progression of AI technology. “[People have] started to think of this only as a question of science fiction, and the reality is these things are happening very quickly,” he said in the same clip released by HBO. “I believe we’re going to start grappling with some of these questions far earlier than we anticipated.”
Fans of “Westworld” are in for more than just sex and guns — this series has clearly just begun when it comes to confronting our current understandings of AI technology and our moral obligations surrounding it. As for the mysteries embedded in the plot, we’ll have to wait and see where the violent delights take us.
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