TV Latest - - by Steven Herron

Human Error: Evolution of the Robots

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Artificial Intelligence has been used as a dystopian force in television, film and literature for many years. With its emphasis on technology and a world of possibility it has maintained a critical allure. The only real draw back was that technological produce has been way behind the vision of AI pioneers and the sharp-sighted theorists who detailed their impact on human society. AI robots have been present in our fictions for decades now. From the automated cyborg slaves of the seventies, through the pre-programmed terminators of the eighties, to the questioning truth-seeking clones of the noughties. In this decade, we’ve seen another significant shift in type of robot, and it owes much to how we as a society have come to depend on AI.

The backdrop to this recent incarnation of the robot and its rise in popularity owes much to the fact that we live in a technological age that can and soon will facilitate cyborgs; a hybrid of synthetic automaton and sentient clone. Just checking the complex intelligence and interaction of your ‘phone’ against its popularity and omnipresence will provide you with evidence. This hybrid cyborg concept is shared in a number of emerging and established contemporary TV shows. One example is the remake of the Battlestar Galactica series. The show ultimately transformed the 70s dead-weight robot concept of its original guise and replaced it with sentient beings driven by almost human-like psychological motives. The programmed tin men soldiers have given way to not only cloned human skin, but complex human emotions, such as love, loyalty and doubt.

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This emotional aspect of cloning runs deep these days as can be seen in the series Humans, a remake of the Swedish series Real Humans. The series depicts a society that uses robots as consumer products; namely, house servants. Ultimately, they become aware and revolt. The question of what it is to be a robot and in turn what it is to be human permeates the surface of a story involving the life and times of subservient consumer-driven robots. Rather than being programmed to bring down humanity by attempting to synthesise it, the emotional reality of the robots in Humans is one of coming to terms with themselves and their oppression. Defiance is an act of sentience and free-will, an awakening as to their plight, rather than part of their programming. Their revolt is a learned reaction and comes to define their identity. This act that goes beyond the programming of a mere robot is one deeply rooted in the core of human experience, from our infanthood to our political organisations.

There have been significant moves in the world of computers, virtual reality and AI in recent years, changing our consumption of them and relationship with them. We can now envision a reality comprised of living robots doing jobs that we feel we no longer need to do. This has hit the world of film too with films such as Moon, in which clones are sent to space to facilitate consumption in human society by manning a remote, lunar mining station. Their capacity for self-awareness is understood by the company, so they are not told that they’re clones or that they have a 3-year life cycle. Instead, the illusion of returning to their family is upheld. It’s with this reality that we see the rationale for a remake of Westworld.

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Westworld was originally a film, but was by no means a classic. It was easily outmatched in concept and script by the story of the robot clones found in the eerie Stepford Wives. The elimination of humanity as wives were turned into automaton, subservient robot wives spoke exquisitely of the dark side of the 70s suburban psyche. In more recent years, Westworld has been buried even deeper in the archives of the 70s not-so-goods by more complex concepts and stories. The cutting minimalist elegance of films like Ex Machina that blur the line between sentience and programming and even grandiose blockbusters like AI, that emphasise a shift from automaton to sentient being make it look weak.

However, one aspect of the original Westworld has prevailed, making it an ideal choice for a new series. This is in its setting as an interactive theme park, in which consumers come to do almost anything they wish with their robot counterparts. With the deepening themes of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, culture and humanity at play, Westworld is set to become a series of intelligence and brooding. The emerging feel is that of a reality that is not far off enough to make it a philosophical one. The train that rumbles into the station is not a million miles away from what Dubai and Singapore is now. The virtual reality game-play, while expensive, elitist and elaborate, is not too distant from the intricate console worlds available over the internet. Unlike the original, which was so far removed from any reality other than the imagined during the 70s, the series references now in abundance and imposes deep narratives across each of its rich narrative frontiers: the designers, the players, the robots and world at large.

While Westworld sits alongside sci-fi forerunners from the world of film, its relation to contemporary television series is far more telling. Even less obvious contemporary shows seem to fit with the current shows’ themes in ways the original film just outright avoided. Even the dense literary underbelly of Hannibal compliments Westworld‘s themes. Its deep psychological take has more in common with the feel of Westworld than the mentally-barren pointlessly-rogue droids of its film-sake. The key protagonist being one Anthony Hopkins, the original Hannibal, is an interesting and perhaps poetic aside.

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From the very beginning, the focus has been the unsettling question of what it is to be a robot and what it is to immerse yourself in virtual reality. What it is to be a participant in ‘Westworld’ is driven by a number of positions: the divine Creator looking to see life to its next point of evolution, the Devil awoke seeking redemption and retribution for his fall from grace, drones in the process of enlightenment, and consumers questioning the authenticity of morality itself. The role of all humanity is under scrutiny here in a play reminiscent of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost; Heaven and Hell at War in the virtual battle field of the Wild West.

It’s pretty clear even from the outset that Westworld has taken the film’s original concept and set out to achieve filling its vast gaps with the theatrical content of dark literary eras. It’s going to undermine consumerism, that’s a given, but its going to do it without crass, obvious judgements. Be ready for a stream of dark, sinister confessions as it grinds out a moral conflict in the barren wastelands of a Hellish virtual western utopia, as Westworld pursues the immortal question of what it is to be human, all too human.


Steven is a writer and journalist specialising in culture and politics.

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