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Predicting Westworld: where the AI comes from

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Westworld
HBO

One of my earliest jobs was secretary at my mother’s hair salon. I booked appointments and sold shampoos, sure, but mostly I gossiped with customers. I could spot the exact moment when a guest spotted a juicy tidbit in the salon’s copies of Entertainment Weekly or US. Their eyes would widen, the magazine would lower a few inches below their chin, and they’d share the personal drama of a B-list celebrity or an obscure casting rumor. I learned gossip and speculation are only as fun as your capacity to share them.

My favorite dish was, and still is, plot rumors and theories. The only thing I relish more than mysterious TV shows is making baseless predictions about where they’re heading. I don’t think I’m smarter than the creators, nor do I expect them to follow my dream path — I loved the ending of Lost, after all. Speculating is just relaxed fun, like trying to guess who committed the crime during the first commercial break for an episode of Law & Order.

Naturally, Westworld is precisely the show I want to button my weekend. It only debuted a couple of days ago, and it’s already providing mountains of meta-fodder and plot vagaries to unpack with friends throughout the work week. One episode in, I’m already sewing together end-game theories.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to take a big swing at a story prediction, and use this post as a springboard for conversation in the comments. If it goes well, maybe this can be one of the water coolers we share for the next couple months.

My theory of the week:

Every artificial intelligence in Westworld is built atop the intelligence of a real (and probably dead) human being.

Westworld’s artificially intelligent robots have been improved upon for at least 30 years — probably a good deal longer. We know that, each day, the robots are reset, and sometimes, during the downtime, they receive firmware updates, not unlike your phone or TV. The latest update includes a feature called “reveries,” represented by tiny physical improvisations that stem from stored memories. The first time we see it, a young AI woman runs her finger across her lip, a behavior she wasn’t explicitly programmed to do.

Late in the pilot, we learn that many of Westworld’s robots have performed other roles in past scenarios. Possibly all of them have. For instance, Peter — the father of the show’s central bot, Dolores Abernathy — previously played a number of roles, including a Shakespeare-quoting professor turned cannibal cultist. These memories, from past roles, can also be lifted from reveries, and so we see Peter seemingly threatening the park’s staff with a menacing line from Henry IV: Part II.

But I don’t think reveries end with the past roles of artificial intelligence.

My baseless speculation:

This theory requires one big assumption: the show will reveal that to create truly lifelike artificial intelligence, the programmers must build artificial personalities atop the memories and intelligence of real human beings. Real memories provide that extra spark of life, along with (while I’m wildly speculating anyway) the visual source material for their appearance.

My evidence:

While walking about his farm, Peter finds a photograph of a woman in New York City. Even with reveries, Peter isn’t programmed to recognize these inconsistencies, let alone ask the larger questions about the context of the photo. A photograph. New York City. The woman’s anachronistic clothes. All of these things would trigger questions if Peter, or some form of his memory and intellect, had experience in the real world.

A conversation between Westworld’s narrative director and quality-assurance director makes it abundantly clear that Westworld’s management has ambitions greater than simply running a debaucherous amusement park. What is the end goal? A good deal of theory and fiction about artificial intelligence builds to the singularity, a moment in which humans merge their consciousness with AI, and transcend to a higher level of being. Westworld may be a testing ground for the combination of human consciousness and artificial intelligence, and reveries are a beta test of the major feature built atop 30 years of hidden-in-plain-sight AI research and development.

My odds:

I’d put this theory at a 5:1. We know there will be a big turn about how artificial intelligence is made. And “humans as product” has been a popular twist in science fiction, even before Charlton Heston screamed “Soylent Green is people!”