The nagging worry that humanity’s dependence on technology will eventually bring about our evolutionary obsolescence has an undeniable logic. After all, if machines are doing all of the work, don’t humans represent an inefficiency? What purpose do we serve? Ultimately, the next life-form model offers a higher level of functionality.
Herein lies the queasy fascination with stories about artificial intelligence — people love their smart phones, but we don’t want to end up being outmoded like smart phones.
Recently, however, there’s been a more welcoming attitude toward our new robot overlords. In Alex Garland’s 2015 expert thriller Ex Machina, the sympathy lies with the Frankenstein monster who eventually overthrows her master, rather than with the boorish man who created her. In the luminously creepy 2016 documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog ponders the possibility of a sentient internet with the same mix of awe and fear with which he once contemplated South American jungles and north American grizzly bears.
HBO’s thoughtful and engrossing new drama series Westworld makes the most persuasive case yet for the primacy of artificial life over its realer, more flawed counterpart. Based on the kitschy 1973 sci-fi film written and directed by Michael Crichton — its most lasting image is a robotic Yul Brynner literally losing his face — Westworld is set in a not-too-distant future in which rich people pay $40,000 per day for access to a Wild West theme park populated by amazingly lifelike robots posing as outlaws, blacksmiths, barkeeps, and prostitutes. For the human visitors, there are no rules — they can murder or rape the robots at whim, in the midst of drinking whiskey and riding horses on the range. This hedonism is predicated on the robots (or “hosts”) having no memories or cognitive understanding of the world outside the park, a blinkered reality fostered by Westworld’s melancholy director, Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins).
But as Westworld opens, the facade is cracking — the town’s archetypal girl next door (Evan Rachel Wood) is feeling early pangs of consciousness, and instead of quashing it, the park’s grief-stricken programmer (Jeffrey Wright) takes a paternal interest. Meanwhile, a seemingly psychopathic Westworld regular dressed like Lee Van Cleef in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Ed Harris) is roaming the park’s outskirts in search of a mysterious “maze” that he believes will lead him to the park’s inner sanctum.