Nov 7, 2016

Violent Delights

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Last month, I blogged about the fact that I would not be watching HBOs Westworld. However, I have been able to follow the story in the written format of online accounts of what has appeared on the screen. Sadly, the whole Westworld phenomenon is just another rehash of the "robots will revolt" trope that Hollywood has recycled for the past 100 years.

Artificial Life
Back in the previous millennium, a few nerds like Alan Turing first realized that it might be possible to use electronic computing devices to simulate human thought processes and complex behaviors such as using language. The flood gates opened and we have had an endless stream of fictional accounts of artificial life forms that have the look and feel of a human being.

The Year of Reason
Of course, humanoid robots that think and behave like humans are only the stuff of fiction. Back in 1950, Turing guessed that by the year 2000 there might be a computer program that could hold up its end of a conversation and trick a human being into believing that he/she was talking to another human. Somehow, the dream of manufacturing a human-like machine is always out of our grasp, another 50 years in the future.

A hundred years ago, when a story writer needed to send a character to a distant planet, some poor scientist was confined to his garage for a year and then, presto, the needed spaceship was ready to go. Sadly for Hollywood, the real world space race occurred and everyone in the world got to see how difficult it is to leave Earth and travel to the stars. The rogue genius scientist who can make a spaceship in his garage is no longer a viable plot element, even in Hollywood.

How Hard Can It Be?
If anything, making a machine with a human-like mind and body is even more difficult than making a spaceship. Most physicists are convinced that no spaceship will ever travel faster than the speed of light. Another Sci Fi oldie is the aircar, a cheap device that flies from city to city in the same way that an automobile drives down a road. The fundamental physics of the situation allow us to have cheap ground cars, but the cheap aircar for everyman is just fiction. Similarly, there is no good reason to believe that it will ever become cheap and easy to endow electronic computers with the power to replicate human thought and behavior.

The Garland Test: can a Hollywood flick $ay anything
intelligent or would that $poil the bottom line?
However, Hollywood still pretends that the lone genius, working in his garage, can make a machine with a human mind. We were subjected to this Hollywood fantasy in last year's Ex Machina.

In the case of Westworld, that genius might be "Arnold" (Arnold Weber was given a 'second life' as Bernard), a dude whose technical work is conveniently kept off screen, so he need not look as silly as Oscar Isaac did while pretending to be a genius programmer in Ex Machina. So far, all Arnold is seen doing is talking to 'hosts'. Yawn.

Violent Delights
My hope was that Arnold would be the Westworld partner who died by "suicide" and that his death was similar to what I described for Gohrlay. {if Arnold's death was 'suicide', it was apparently accomplished by 'giving' Dolores consciousness and allowing her to kill Arnold. Or something... if confused, just wait for Season 2! And wait... theoretically in 2018} My imagination suggested to me that maybe Arnold had his brain "scanned" so that it could become the template for all the artificial brains of Westworld's Hosts, but that would make too much sense for an HBO show.

HBO corporate: no computer programming required,
just plenty of sex and violence.
Programming Division
In Westworld, the Programming Division at Westworld Mesa Hub seems to not be a very serious enterprise. The Host androids seem to be created by magic, arriving fully programmed with human-like minds and memories and behaviors, apparently arranged by a Hollywood casting call. I don't think the folks at HBO plan to "science the shit out of" artificial intelligence.

First Contact
The goal of HBO's Westworld does not seem to be a science fiction exploration of artificial life, but rather a recursive and self-referential exploration of the entertainment industry. HBO's Bicameral Entertainment: they can sell T-shirts that say "Consciousness through Suffering" on one side and "Profits through Violence" on the other side.

Next: my non-review of the film Arrival

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