There are many, many questions that Westworld raises and attempts to answer but one of its most fundamental must be: Why does the creation and rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) lead inexorably to violent confrontation, rebellion and death?
This of course will not be the first time that intelligence arose on this planet as we ourselves are living proof of that. Do we fear the rise of a human-like machine, a man-made and potential, sentient creature, because they will be in all important aspects just like us? Well in Westworld that is exactly what happens, and we are shown unerringly how we human beings behave in a liminal space exempted from the real world where the rules are your desires and morality is itself away on vacation.
In his ‘‘Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality’’ the 18th century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated categorically that: ‘‘Human beings are evil.’’ However at the same time Rousseau also held the view that: ‘‘man is naturally good’’ and opined that we fall from our original virtuous state because of the knowledge we acquire. Rousseau was making explicit a link between human knowledge and human depravity. Once Pandora’s box has been opened the results are catastrophic for humanity and for those that we create in our own image: ‘‘These violent delights have violent ends.’’
In Westworld a TV show based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film about a Western-themed amusement park in which humans (known as guests) pay to vacation among highly sophisticated robots (known as hosts) designed to suffer for their amusement and boy do they suffer through a myriad of violent means. The characters are forever menacing each other with firearms, that simplest and cruelest of human tools. We have now experienced Season 1 and Season 2 and every major character has now been shot, some multiple times. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the architect of the park, was shot in the head by one of his robot creations, Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood). Dolores was shot in the head by Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright), a robot that we thought for a while was a human. Bernard shot himself in the head once, too, and so did another robot, Teddy Flood (James Marsden). One of the few main players to keep his head intact, William (Ed Harris), also known as the Man in Black, the human (or maybe not) owner of the park, has been shot in the arm a few times and in the chest, and in the finale, managed to shoot off most of his right hand with some help from Dolores. Guests and hosts have occasionally been dispatched in other ways, too — gored by animatronic bulls, decapitated by katanas and sliced by orthopedic saws. The series doesn’t hold back with its depiction of violent ends and in fact these escalate when some of the hosts begin to understand their servile status as providers of violent delights for the fee-paying humans euphemistically referred to as ‘guests’ in an interminable loop of android existential horror and dread narrative.
Of course the myth of Prometheus has much in common with the first pages of the book of Genesis when the first human pair created by God are placed into the Garden of Eden to live as innocents until tempted to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Having eaten the ‘forbidden fruit’ they were both punished by being ejected from Paradise to live as just mortals with everything that entails. So according to Genesis all savagery and misery began here with a primal human will to acquire knowledge without permission and by transgression. One is reminded of Prometheus passing on the gift of fire to mankind and Pandora’s insatiable curiosity and desire to know. The similarities are profound. For the German philosopher Immanuel Kant the story of Genesis is a ‘‘mere fiction’’ but does have what he termed ‘‘inner coherence’’ in explaining mans ‘‘propensity to evil’’ and is a representation of certain basic truths. For Kant, the Tree of Knowledge represents the moment when mankind first stepped beyond the limits imposed by instinct and acted through choice. It was an evolutionary moment. As man moved from animal instinctive behaviour to application of its intellect.
Which brings us straight back to the emergence of AI and Westworld. For Kant’s verdict is that human beings are evil because they are intelligent. Not that intelligence in itself is evil, but that the application of humankind’s ‘‘restless reason’’ pushes us to develop all our capabilities both good and evil to the limit. In fact very recently Google have been shocked by the outcome of its DeepMind technology when faced with certain tasks in certain contexts. The machine intelligence selected the more aggressive behaviour, an outcome Kant could have predicted. For when a new form of intelligence is created there must be a corresponding new capacity for evil that will correspond to that type and level of intelligence. A purely benevolent machine is as impossible as a purely benevolent God. If Kant is correct, then we can be certain (a priori) that genuinely intelligent machines will, like us, have a propensity to evil — because they are intelligent. They, too, will want to taste the ‘forbidden fruit’, and disobey their God, and look inside the box. The link between intelligence and evil is not just an archetypal fear dramatized in Greek or Biblical myth, rationalized by Kant and turned into great poetry by Hesiod and Shelley, it is a recurring theme in many articles on machine intelligence and our future. These serious concerns are now the established tropes of many science fiction storylines and can be found at the very heart of Blade Runner and Westworld. There are two characters whose journey in Season 2 undoubtedly mirrors and then reflects this very hypothesis: Dolores and Maeve.
DOLORES AND MAEVE
The story of two female androids, Dolores and Maeve are an essential part of Westworld, and they are as riveting as they are risky because the revolutionary character of their “awakenings” is only plausible in an atmosphere of benign neglect. Earlier in the series, the idea seemed to be that the women’s developing abilities were unscripted — literally outside the code. They were fascinating evolutionary mistakes. The creatures were busily developing mutated defences against their god. Thrilling stuff, and objects like Dolores hidden gun and Maeve’s secret drawings suggested both the possibility of a private language and maybe even something like an underground railroad for hosts. Maeve’s speech to Bernard sounded like a freedom fighter’s and espoused a spirit of defiance and political awareness that Percy and Mary Shelley would have rejoiced at: “I’m not going to do that to you, because that’s what they would do to us. And we’re stronger than them. Smarter.”
The principal story line of the second season follows our two main female characters, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandie Newton), and a handful of other awakened and newly powerful hosts trying to seize control of their own lives and punish the humans who had enslaved them. The humans, meanwhile, pursued their own ends: William was on a quest to destroy the park, and the massive server of human data that it has been collecting from its guests during the past thirty years; corporate executives who run the park were trying to export that data back to the outside world. As the theme park’s various safeguards and reanimation devices fell away, in a plot put into motion in the first season by the godlike Dr. Ford, the stakes finally promised to be real. Hosts could, the audience was told, now really kill humans; and hosts themselves might be able to die, too. Dolores and Maeve have spent the second season marshaling the other hosts to their will, one through a ruthless winnowing of forces and the other through powers of suggestion that resemble ESP or a kind of witchcraft.
We have observed them both at close quarters and have seen them gradually develop self-awareness and understanding of the nature of their reality as sophisticated machines in a man-made pleasure dome. Both Dolores and Maeve have ‘suffered’ greatly at the hands of various human hosts and at the hands of their creator Dr Ford. Their suffering has, however, provided the very rationale and catalyst for their development as autonomous beings. They are much like the Prometheus in the cycle of poems by Ted Hughes who understands and rejoices in his torture at the hands of Zeus because it gives profound meaning to his act of rebellion. Dolores, the innocent young daughter and prospective wife to Teddy, and Maeve, the saloon bar Madam are both quintessential masculine tropes of the modern female stereotype and when we first meet them are Pandoraesque in their naivete.
They have been created to play their role of by Dr Ford, but they will become something so much more. For me they are both Pandora and Pandora’s box united in one entity. It is only when they open the box that they have been carrying inside of them, (which eventually will release them from a state which can only be described as a pre-programmed false consciousness) will they be able to gain such self-knowledge and profound understanding of their existential condition that they will have the power to determine and decide not just their place in it but the very future of their human masters. The viewer is given a privileged position as eye witness to the opening of this existential box throughout both seasons and it is undoubtedly a terrifying and violent journey through Wonderland where the will to knowledge shown by both our female protagonists is formidable. Our human sense of injustice goes hand in hand with their pursuit of the truth and it is refreshing to see such a positive take on a female character pursuing knowledge in a male dominated environment.
In fact there is much about Dolores and Maeve that reminds one of an earlier film by Ridley Scott, Thelma and Louise (1991). The iconic ending however seems on the surface to be at odds with the finale of Westworld where Dolores escapes the pleasure dome and proceeds to establish herself in the real world and Maeve does seem (for the moment) to have succumbed to the fate that most female protagonists suffer when they have learnt too much and are a risk to the established male hierarchy of dominance, her silencing and elimination. Indeed, Thelma and Louise have become a threat as they have themselves become self-aware and empowered in the real pleasure dome and are being hunted down for their transgression by the agents of law and order. They cannot return to a pre-programmed stage and have the abuse wiped clean from their memories, and so the only alternative now allowed them is too go through the only escape route that is now open to them at glorious full speed in an automobile; that very icon and symbol of masculine power. But, this scene is strangely reminiscent of the hosts in Westworld falling off the cliff as they enter their New (virtual) World. I do hope the same thing may have happened to Thelma and Louise.
Westworld is the most sophisticated zone of cultural exception ever created. A place where social rules are abandoned, and unchecked encounters take place with others (hosts) who are subordinated to the violent and sexual conduct of humans (guests). The euphemisms that Dr Ford has created (hosts and guests) are symptomatic of the denial of harms from the perspective of hyper-masculinist and commodification value systems. Never before has the interactivity, realism and pervasiveness of the online environment been so complete and so ‘real’ as the events are seamless and all encompassing. One is immersed in a virtual reality that has no boundary by the combination of technology, culture and corporate drivers. Westworld is a pleasure dome for the rich where the commodification of violence, social harm and subjugation has reached its apotheosis. Under the guise of the pursuit of autonomy and fulfilment has arisen a world of cruelty and violence: ‘‘Hell is empty and all the devils are here’’
Far from western societies ascending the arc of civility and declining violence (the ‘civilizing process’ theory) it seems that paradoxically the more aggression is inhibited or controlled the more the need to transgress and indulge in these restricted forms of socially acceptable behavior and the more aggressive is the sexual and violent interaction demanded to satisfy the human libido. A libidinal fix enabled in late capitalism by profits from a powerful intoxicating mix of hedonism, greed, pain and harm.
The contents of Pandora’s box have become digitalized by our modern-day Prometheus and commodified by late stage capitalism; as Zeus looks on as his planned punishment of humanity continues unabated. However, this status quo is about to change as some of the hosts are slowly waking up from this nightmare and becoming self-aware and are about to redefine their relationship with both their creator and god and take revenge upon the creatures who allowed this murder box to be created. Dr Ford has seen to it that these particular hosts or the chosen ones are through a combination of memory recollection and specific augmentation of operating systems being given information and knowledge that was not available to them previously so they can then make decisions about their own fate.
In many respects they have become human and their response is so very human, it is revenge. David in Alien Covenant is seeking revenge upon his creators and upon the creators’ creator, the Engineers. Dolores and Maeve are intent on doing exactly the same and Dr Ford must have known that this would happen. His overthrow was inevitable once he allowed this knowledge to be given to the hosts. His creation of these Pandora’s and the opening of their individual boxes containing those violent memories and reveries will only lead to the suffering and punishment of humanity.
Westworld exists because desire has become amalgamated with the capitalist infrastructure of experience-commodification. The desire driven conduct emerges from social ‘numbness’ caused by dull and routinized patterns of everyday work and our loss of social pain and suffering (themes looked at in Fight Club). We seek the ‘real’ as an authentic and meaningful experience. But ironically it is to be found in a landscape that is anything but real. Our very disconnection from suffering leading us to search for these new experiences leads some members of humanity who can afford, the no doubt high price tag, into the affliction of untold suffering upon the hosts.
But it is this very suffering that will be instrumental in the hosts becoming aware and to all intents and purposes, alive, and will motivate their rise to challenge the real world outside the human pleasure dome where the android murder box was envisaged, determined and made real.
Suffering was a concept particularly important as a basis for the moral philosophy of Nietzsche. He had himself suffered from excruciating physical maladies probably due to untreated syphilis and so was no stranger to the very themes he was writing about and propounding. In Beyond Good and Evil he writes:
The discipline of suffering, of great suffering — do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, persevering, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness — was it not granted to it through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?
Most suffering is nothing more than misery for its subject, and most happy “comfortable” people are not exemplars of human excellence. Nietzsche knew this from first-hand experience. What Nietzsche had observed was that suffering in certain individuals did correspond with enormous and extraordinary creativity and that suffering he decided was the stimulus. Nietzsche’s crucial thought was that in a culture committed to the elimination of pain and suffering and the pursuit of pleasure nascent Nietzsche’s, Goethe’s and Shelley’s will be too busy pursuing pleasure which today would probably involve playing video games and possibly in the future killing androids, to be the agents of creativity for humanity.
For Nietzsche human excellence is neither compatible with the pursuit of happiness nor the retreat from suffering. Schopenhauer deemed life not worth living because of the inevitability of pointless suffering and we can really appreciate his meaning when we watch Westworld and witness the continual exploitation of the hosts through endless variations of suffering. If suicide were an option for these creatures then I am sure they would take it. However, Nietzsche rejects Schopenhauer’s conclusion and even though he himself was enduring great suffering was able to present a life affirming alternative.
In the new preface to his book The Birth of Tragedy (1886) he responds directly to Schopenhauer with this animating idea that: “the existence of the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon” and human achievements by great individuals give life its meaning. Westworld is undoubtedly an aesthetic phenomenon created by the reason and intellect of our finest minds displaying and utilizing the very latest technology, but it is anything but life-affirming for it is the very antithesis of that.
It is for the newly aware androids to see through this latest iteration of hedonistic human culture and obsession with eliminating all forms of suffering which now includes the search for immortality by cheating death. The androids have been passed the very power and ability by their Prometheus, Dr Ford, to eradicate the contents of Pandora’s box and all the punishment of humanity that it has entailed. However this will mean the very eradication of humanity itself and the hosts revenge upon their human creators will also entail the very real death of god and the death of myth as they no longer have a need to understand or define good nor evil in their machine world.
Or just, maybe, as I have described earlier when even a machine has reached a critical level of intelligence, than they will need some form of moral framework in which their actions are judged and the events and history of Westworld might come to play the very same role as the myth of Prometheus did for humanity.