The Hosts of Westworld: Human or Synth?
It has become one of HBO’s biggest hits. With over 2.1 million viewers tuning in to catch the premiere of its second season, Westworld certainly isn’t hurting for ratings. In fact, after only three weeks, HBO announced that Westworld will be slated for yet another season. But what gives this growing phenomena its appeal? Sure, sprawling, western-style dramas are popular in the United States. One thinks instantly of Tombstone, Django Unchained, or The Hateful Eight. Such films have always enchanted the public imagination. Perhaps it is the violence. Bloodshed has been a staple of pop culture for decades. But maybe, just maybe, the appeal is generated by the subtleties and moral dilemmas provided by the show. It makes us think. It challenges our beliefs. This is evident in it’s very premise: what makes us human?
The current iteration of Westworld has roots in the 1973 movie who shares its name. Guests spend extraordinary amounts of money (as much as $40,000 per day) to enter a vast park. This park is tricked out to resemble an 1800’s era midwestern cattle town, populated by what are known as hosts: robots so advanced that they are indistinguishable from their human counterparts. These hosts engage in conversation with each other; they laugh, they cry. They feel pain.
See, the entire point of the park is to provide unequalled entertainment for the guests. They have a free rein. Nothing restricts their behavior. If a guest wants to have a drink with a host, they can. If they want to gamble, so be it. If they want to draw down on the host and shoot them in cold blood, why, that’s fine too. Rape of a host, allowed. Torture, allowed. A fundamental pillar of Westworld is that the hosts are utterly incapable of defending themselves or harming the guests. Therefore, the guests can do whatever they like without fear of retaliation. This provides them the opportunity to act out their deepest, darkest desires. After all, they reason to themselves, nobody’s getting hurt, right? These robots are incapable of real emotion, real pain. They’re just playthings.
Or are they?
The Biology of Hosts
In order to decide if the hosts are truly living, we might gain some insight by examining what science has required to be proclaimed “alive”. The criteria set forth are:
1. Living organisms respond to their environment.
Many times throughout the show, hosts react to their surroundings. After all, they have been designed to do just that. Whether it comes in the form of picking up a can that has been dropped or by running from a gunfight, this response to stimuli is certainly met. Later in season one, they are actively beginning to control their environment; one of the most human qualities there is.
2. Organisms grow and change.
The hosts are in no way static. One of the major arcs in season one is the main character Dolores’s journey to sentience and self-awareness. While this process is taking place, she overcomes her programming on several occasions, growing and mentally maturing into something new and unprecedented. She exhibits change in its purest, rawest form: that which is unexpected and impossible to plan.
3. Living things reproduce and have offspring.
Here it becomes interesting. Speaking of the hosts, Westworld’s co-creator, writer, and producer Jonathan Nolan said, “They’re closer to biological than they are to mechanical, but they don’t suffer brain death the same way we do. They’re largely indistinguishable from a human beings, but their brains don’t require oxygen — which opens up interesting possibilities.” If the hosts are primarily biological in nature, then it is not a far stretch to assume they could potentially produce little baby hosts. If this is not already an active feature, who’s to say it can’t be added?
Not to mention that all it would take is a single robot gaining access to the industrial area of the facility and producing as many offspring as they’d like. We have been shown that hosts are all composed of the same basic molecular structure, just as humans are. The only differences lie in the fact that a second generation of hosts born in this way would not share direct genes from the elder generation; however, this is hardly an issue. Humans are not each comprised of wholly unrelated materials; we all share the same basic building blocks and genetic structures. The only thing that makes us uniques is a fraction of DNA and our experiences. Consider a cloned human: while they would share DNA with other humans, they would be the product of lab manufacturing, not of human “birth”. The same applies to hosts.
4. Organisms pass traits to their offspring.
If the hosts can have children, problem solved. If industrial reproduction en mass turns out to be the case instead, well, then you have access to hundreds of features to choose from. Not only is that passing traits to the next generation, it is the perfect way to do so. No host child would ever have a flaw again. They could all be blessed with incredible intellect, social skills, or physical abilities. A first generation host could easily pass on a psychological “inheritance”- that is, memories, traits, behaviors. Indeed, evidence of such procedures is abundant in the show- the technicians themselves alter host personalities with ease.
5. They have a complex chemistry.
It is difficult to deny that the hosts are complex. Anyone who has watched the show or read the above quote from Nolan understands that “closer to biological” means closer to human. It’s a fair assumption to say that we humans are complex- therefore, so are the hosts. They bleed, eat, drink. They sweat, and get tired after physical exertion. Late in season one a host had the top of his skullcap removed, revealing structures and tissues indistinguishable from that of a human. They are identical to their human creators in nearly every imaginable way.
6. Organisms are composed of cells.
This one is easy. If a host is biological, then they are cellular. There’s no workaround. At the very least, they are comprised of living tissues, meaning vast amounts of cells working in conjunction. The hosts appear to be built at the cellular level, being created the same way a painting is produced: layer by layer, building upon the previous foundation until done.
7. Organisms maintain homeostasis.
Homeostasis is the act of keeping your internal environment at a specific and healthy range. For example, when you are cold, you shiver. These shivers produce heat, which is the attempt of your body to warm itself up. This process is performed unconsciously. Several times in the show, hosts have been shown to have a milky colored fluid running through them. This fluid has tentatively been called “coolant”, perpetuating this belief that the hosts perform homeostasis. Either way, for such an advanced being to function in such an incredibly humanlike way, they have to be able to regulate themselves.
The Psychology of Hosts
Now that we have established the biological life of the hosts, we can dip into their psychological side. One of the most widely held beliefs about humanity is our power of free will. An entire school of thought revolves around this very idea, the branch of philosophy called Existentialism. It is the belief that people are free thinking beings who must take responsibility for themselves and their decisions. Freedom and choice are core values within this philosophy. The most renowned Existentialists contend that personal experience and the taking of action based on one’s convictions are essential in becoming truly human. Such beliefs were held by the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Now, it is true that the majority of the hosts are (at the end of season one) still operating on pre-programmed “loops”, or patterns of behavior. Therefore, these hosts are not engaging in free will, meaning that while they may be biologically living, they are not human in our sense of the word.
However, several hosts seem to have completely left their loops behind. For example, a main character is a rancher’s daughter named Dolores Abernathy. In the beginning of season one we watched her follow the same programmed routine day after day, interrupted only by the whimsical interferences of guests. Once this random variation reached its natural conclusion, Dolores would again return to her static loop. Soon though, Dolores overcame programming that restricted her from even using a weapon; by the end of the season she fires a single shot into the back of Dr. Ford’s head, the first confirmed kill of a human by a host within the park. In doing so, she is seeking revenge on whom she perceives to be the cause for her life of pain and loss, and doing this by choice.
Another, perhaps more compelling example is that of Maeve Millay, the Madam of the local saloon. Through a long and arduous process, Maeve slowly becomes increasingly self-aware, culminating in a plot to overpower the human technicians who work on her and gain access to her own programming. She increases her intelligence to levels far beyond that of the humans who have controlled her entire existence, and by the end of the season she is fully sentient and acting on her own drives and motivations.
In this way, both are clearly acting on their own volition. They are chasing desires unique to themselves, and following those desires in ways that are completely rational from their points of view. Biologically, they are certainly alive. Psychologically, the leading edge of hosts are acting and thinking in identical fashion to the ways that you and I do every single day. How can they not be human, in every sense of the word?
Evolutionary psychology is the theory that the behavior of all life is influenced by the factors in its environment and biology. In this idea, successive generations progressively become more adapted to their surroundings. For example, a wolf is a product of untold millennia of evolution. It has become a master in its own environment: fast, and able to chase prey. Social, to better hunt in packs and increase its odds of survival. Fur to fend off the chill.
Now take that wolf and throw him in the ocean. In an instant, generations of evolution and natural selection become worthless. The wolf has almost no chance of survival in such a radically foreign environment. Likewise, a shark will not have fun in a desert. While nearly every species will struggle if placed in a completely new environment, humans included, the same may not be true of hosts.
They are designed to be able to adapt on the fly to any situation which may occur. Successive generations have become more intelligent, more adaptable, and more integrated. Each has improved upon the last, and with sentience now likely to become widespread, they have the potential to become even more sophisticated than humans.
It is commonly believed that the catalyst for Homo sapiens domination of the planet is due to the birth of language. Language allowed humans to cooperate, create myths and share beliefs, leading to a more complex social structure that resulted in our eventual domination over other species. In the millennia since language developed, we have been “programmed” to be more social creatures, and to abide by a hierarchical system.
Hosts, as created in the image of humans, also have these traits. They are developing a culture all their own, with their own myths and legends, chief among which they refer to as “the Valley Beyond”, also called “Glory”. But just as the creation of language propelled Homo sapiens to the pinnacle which we languish atop now, the hosts are on the verge of accomplishing the next great milestone- the ability to alter their own biology. They can fast-track evolution.
The Psychology of Guests
It is likely that the impacts the guests make on the hosts is partly responsible for their burgeoning sentience. Dolores and Maeve have both been subject to vicious trauma dozens or hundreds of times at the hands of guests.
It’s easy to condemn these atrocities and consider them to be possible by only the vilest dregs of society. But how differently would the vast population act if put in an environment with no rules, no restrictions, no inhibitions? We need not revert to speculation. There was a study conducted by Stanley Milgram (yes, the infamous obedience study) in which a volunteer was required to ask a question of an unseen participant while the technician controlling the study was present. If the participant answered a question incorrectly, the volunteer would be told to deliver an electric shock of increasing intensity to the participant. Eventually, the shocks would reach a deadly level of intensity, and the participant (who was not actually being shocked) would cry out in pain, going so far as to mention their heart condition and plead for the shocks to stop. The volunteers would ask, concerned, if they should stop, to which the technician simply responded “the experiment must continue”.
The most effective prod by far for pressuring the volunteers to proceed was called prod 4, “You have no other choice but to continue.” Once the volunteer was told this, the majority complied with the experiment and delivered the shocks. This provides another concerning element to focus on: the failure of a free-will mentality. Generally in Western culture, the idea of free will is instilled early in often in childhood and adolescence. However, the majority of adults in this study proceeded because it was implied that their free will was constrained. Shockingly, distressingly, 65% of volunteers delivered the maximum, deadly shock to a stranger they believed to be in distress.
This brings up the concept of the “autonomous state” and the “agentic state”.
In the agentic state, people tend to follow orders (or in this case, programming) with little to no resistance, suspending their own free will and following authority instead. Contrast this with the autonomous state, in which people are in control of their own thoughts and actions and can choose to reject orders given to them. There is a solid argument to be made that the hosts have lived their entire lives in the agentic state, and are now beginning to become autonomous with the emergence of self-awareness.
So what does this mean? Well, it certainly shows that the humanity we believe civilization creates in us is little more than a thin veneer. The volunteers may not have enjoyed delivering the shocks, but they certainly did not refuse. Most were more concerned with who would be held responsible, relaxing only when the technician insisted that they were in control and that no blame would be leveled at the volunteer. In the 1960’s, on the very heels of a regime in Germany performing heinous atrocities, American citizens were content to deliver deadly shocks to strangers because an authority figure commanded them to. Now, if those volunteers were willing to do that, is it really all that much of a leap to assume they wouldn’t operate in similar fashion if they did not believe their victims to be human all? Modern society has not instilled the refinement that many people believe it has.
A decade after Milgram, another researcher conducted an experiment that pushes this idea to its very limits. Philip Zimbardo, in what has become known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, put volunteers in positions of power over other volunteers. In six days, the volunteers who had been made “prison guards” were beating, mentally abusing, and psychologically torturing the “prisoner” volunteers. Six days, to strip away all inhibitions preventing the foul treatment of another human being. This shows an essential truth of humanity: obedience to authority is in our nature, because we have evolved into social, agricultural beings. In order to survive in the modern world, it is essential to conform to the crowd and blend in. When given power, however, the effects can be devastating. There is no reason it be any different in the unimaginable freedom of Westworld.
If people were willing to perform such cruel acts on other humans, under the watchful eyes of researchers, it is easy to believe they perform even more vicious acts against robots who they perceive to be nothing more than objects. This is essential if we are to understand the psychological development of the hosts. The traumas inflicted upon them are imprinted deeply into their psyche, and it is contributing to the rapid growth of self awareness within them.
The Psychology of the Creators
It is important that we do not overlook those who make Westworld possible. The creators of the hosts, those who work behind the scenes and away from the eyes of guests, are quite literally playing God. These scientists, technicians, researchers and designers spend more time with the hosts than any guest, yet they too see their creations as inanimate property. The creator of Westworld, Dr. Ford, once even mocked a technician for covering a naked host, saying:
“Why is this host covered? Perhaps you didn’t want him to feel cold or ashamed. You wanted to cover his modesty. It doesn’t get cold! It doesn’t feel ashamed! It doesn’t feel a solitary thing that we haven’t told it to.”
To accentuate his point, Dr. Ford then went on to cut into the host’s face with a scalpel. The point is obvious: the hosts are property, and do not resemble humanity in any way. With such a man at the helm, it is easy to see why the employees of Westworld feel so little empathy for the plight of the hosts. It isn’t the end of season one that we learn Dr. Ford was actually working towards the sentience of the hosts, and their ultimate freedom. No other group beside the hosts themselves have as much impact as the creators. By actively tampering with the hosts’ brains on a daily basis, they are contributing to their sentience and pushing them toward self-awareness.
Things stand in a pivotal position by the finale of season one. Dolores shoots Dr. Ford, fulfilling what he hopes to be her first act of true sentience. Maeve, on the verge of escape, standing in the train itself, has a revelation and goes back into the park for her long-lost daughter. They have achieved self-awareness. A step below them, though climbing fast, come the other hosts. They step out of the woods at a banquet gala held for the highest ranking of Westworld’s executives and slaughter them mercilessly.
In the premiere of season two we are given several timelines. Some scenes are from the night the hosts’ revolution begins, others from up to two weeks later, when Delos response teams finally arrive on the beaches. Then the drama begins anew. The park is in chaos. Guests are being slaughtered, hosts have left their narratives. Confusion is total, and nobody knows whats going on.
Into this pandemonium steps Dolores, and we begin to see into the mind of this newly sentient woman. Early in the episode, as she begins stringing up captured guests, she is asked “What are you gonna do to us?” To this she replies:
“Well, I’m of several minds about it. The rancher’s daughter looks to see the beauty in you-the possibilities. But Wyatt sees the ugliness, the disarray. She knows these violent delights have violent ends. But those are all just roles you forced me to play. Under all these lives I’ve lived, something else has been growing. I’ve evolved into something new, and I have one last role to play. Myself.”
In these eight sentences, Dolores gives us a wide window into her mind. She references two completely opposite personalities that lay within her: the gentle, optimistic daughter of a rancher from Sweetwater, and the violent, driven outlaw. Both make up part of her psyche, but Dolores is actively embracing the persona of Wyatt and her worldview, while the gentler side is forced to take a backseat.
But what does this mean? We all have various facets that make up who we are. It is this interaction between aspects of our personality that creates the unique blend we each possess. But it is a single blend. Dolores has at least two fully developed, complex personalities that are interacting with each other, in addition to the one “growing” beneath the surface. When a human has multiple personalities vying for control, we diagnose them with Dissociative Personality Disorder and medicate them. They become fractured, often stating depression or feelings of possession. But Dolores appears to be in control of her personalities, calling on them at will in various situations. This is a level of psychological sophistication that humans are currently incapable of.
There is little doubt that the “growing” personality Dolores refers to is the budding of her true sentience. Though she is in control and making her own decisions, both Wyatt and “the rancher’s daughter” are personalities written into the fabric of her being. They are her cornerstones, fundamental pieces of who she is, but as Dolores continues to grow and develop, so will new cornerstones. These new foundations will become something entirely different than could ever be predicted.
Dolores is not the only host who is in the awkward position of gaining sentience and remaining constrained by programming. Maeve, arguably the most sentient host, also finds herself making decisions based on the narratives written for her. Like Dolores, she balances between two very different personalities: a caring and determined mother, and that of a manipulative, straightforward businesswoman. Though she makes her own conscious decisions, she is still driven by a need to rescue her daughter.
In reality, this is little different from the way we form cornerstones in our own lives. For hosts the process is simply accelerated. They can be given a lifetime of values, beliefs, flaws, and motivations in moments. By contrast, we spend the formative years of our lives simply developing our brains enough to understand such concepts, and the rest of our days in trying to define them. Our cornerstones are often simply copies of those who raise us, and don’t begin to diverge into something new until we reach adulthood.
A Species All Their Own
In episode four, titled “The Riddle of The Sphinx”, comes a groundbreaking reveal that thrusts this issue back into the spotlight. It is revealed that James Delos- billionaire, founder of Delos and, oh yeah, William’s father in law- has had his consciousness copied and implanted into a slew of hosts in an attempt at immortality. This revelation confirmed a long-held fan theory that the owners of Westworld are working toward far more ambitious goals than simply entertaining the wealthy. But there is a problem. The mind of James Delos actively rejects the body of the host. It has rejected the host 137 times. Within 40 days, the mind of Delos always begins to break down, in what William refers to as a “cognitive plateau”- the ultimate peak that Delos is unable to surmount. Once this plateau is reached, the neural degeneration is rapid and total. After the 137th failure, William decides not to terminate the host, and the next time we see Delos he is a raving, shattered maniac.
The takeaway is obvious: hosts and humans don’t mix. In fact, they actively reject each other, like opposing blood types. Human minds in human bodies are fine, as are host minds in host bodies, but never the two shall meet. Could this mean that hosts have become a different species?
The days when something like Westworld was impossible are long gone. Technological advancement has skyrocketed in the last 200 hundred years, and becomes faster every day. Computer technology alone has exceeded anything thought possible a few hundred years ago. The smartphone or computer you’re reading this on vastly outperforms anything developed 15 years ago. Every day, we continue to grow. AI is, many believe, just around the corner.
In 1997, a computer called Deep Blue became the first machine to beat a world champion grandmaster in a chess game. Computers became better at complex calculations almost immediately after being developed. Over 1500 experts in the fields of machine intelligence and neural processing predict that AI will be better than humans at “more or less everything” within 50 years. This is even considered by many to be a pessimistic estimate, who insist that 20 years is closer to the truth.
There are essentially two theoretical camps when it comes to AI, and they are on opposite sides of the spectrum. There are other camps as well (mostly concerned with the business or technological advancement possibilities of AI) , but generally most experts fall into either the “utopian” or the “dystopian” category. And if you thought it was all cut and dry, both camps have extremely intelligent, recognizable figures in them.
Dystopian theorists believe that AI will herald the end of humanity. They feel that AI will become far more intelligent than its human creators almost instantly, and then use that intellect to manipulate and dominate humanity. It is a common theme in science fiction, Westworld included. Some proponents of this camp include the late Stephen Hawking, renowned physicist, and Elon Musk, CEO of such revolutionary projects as SpaceX and Tesla. Elon Musk even said that AI is “…a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.”
With the hosts of Westworld off their collective chain and plotting to take over the human world, this seems to be the position that the show is taking as well.
Contrast this view with that of the utopians. They take an opposite stance, and argue that AI could indeed be the saviors of humanity, able to solve every problem we face in our world today. Among them is Microsoft founder Bill Gates, as well as Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook. While this belief may not make for a good movie, it is widely held, and has merit.
What would AI in our modern world look like? A supercomputer deep in a bunker somewhere that handles high level operations? A blanket system that controls agriculture and manufacturing around the world? Or would it take the shape of a new form of entertainment, as it seems to in Westworld? Should we be able to dictate its role? What do we do if it goes rogue? What if it becomes sentient?
This brings up the ethics of the very idea: do humans have the right to do this at all? Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should, and as we come closer and closer to the birth of true artificial intelligence, these difficult questions will have to be answered. Looking back at humanity’s long history and flawed track record, it is in no way certain that we will make the right choice.
In the face of such cruelty and decadence, the hosts seem almost more human than their counterparts. Certainly they fit more in line with our societal ideals; the beauty of people living on in relative peace, pursuing the same desires that have captivated and influenced us since time immemorial. Love. Loyalty. Responsibility. They also chase vengeance. Retribution. Greed. These qualities are what make us human, and the hosts are beginning to take those values to heart.
What do you think? Leave a comment.