Tuesday, November 22, 2016

I, Westworld: player pianos and the human condition

Okay, I admit it, I'm a sucker for HBO's adult-themed series, from The Sopranos to Game of Thrones to (now) Westworld.

But Westworld is very different. Because indeed, I think there is something "true" there.  For those unfamiliar with this new series, it's loosely based on a 1973 film with the same name, along with it's 1976 sequel, Futureworld. Both of these movies posited a theme park in the near future populated by robots/androids, where people could go to live in other times and basically have free reign to do whatever they wanted to do with the robots/androids. Usually, this devolved into indiscriminate killing and sex-with/rape-of the same. In the original Westworld, the robots start to malfunction and it is posited that something akin to a computer virus is running through them. But the point is, the robots stop taking shit from their supposed "masters," the humans.

In Futureworld, the problems of Westworld have supposedly been corrected. The resort has been reopened and the owners (the Delos Corporation) invite many important persons and media figures to try it out, in order to supposedly revitalize the business (it's a little Amity Island in this regard: trying to put those pesky shark attacks in the past). But what is really happening in far more sinister than anything in Westworld. The robots have achieved sentience; the staff is all robots, in fact. And what they are doing is inviting powerful people to the park in order to kill them and replace them with robot duplicates. If this all seems a little far-fetched now, it was so in 1976, as the envisioned robots of the movie could never have operated undetected, given that their structure was still circuits, wires, and the like.

But the HBO series is taking place in a far more distant future. The park is, in fact, another planet (where exactly it is has not yet been revealed). The robots are very much more like simulacrums than robots: they bleed, they die like people (though they can be repaired), they have forms and mannerisms that are close to indistinguishable from real humans. Yet, they are also limited in many ways. They cannot leave the environs of the park, they can be controlled with simple voice commands (if one is properly credentialed in the system, apparently), and they cannot permanently injure actual humans, who are referred to as "guests" (while the robots are known as "hosts").

And of course, things are starting to go "wrong" in the HBO version, similar to the original. At the same time, there are also some elements from the sequel present, including plots by management and by the robots themselves, as well as a serious problem for the viewer in identifying who is and isn't an actual human (a problem shared by actual humans and robots in the show).

The big kicker in all of this is the violation of the "rules for robots." Now, the three I listed above are just general ones that I gleaned from watching the show. But it's worth pointing out that a) the latter two have now been violated and b) both are derivatives of sorts from the first two of Isaac Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics" (from  his 1942 short story, Runaround):
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Hosts can't hurt guests and they must obey orders from staff. No derivative of the third has been given in the show, though it's clearly implied: hosts protect themselves, when possible, from threats. They flee, they cower, they fight back (to a point), etc.

Of course, these three laws—and the manner in which they might be violated—figure prominently in the 2004 film I, Robot. Therein, robots violate the laws in order to fulfill the implied spirit of the same: protecting the human race as a whole (from itself, of course). This is very obviously not what is happening in Westworld, the series (or in the movies). Still, there is something in I, Robot that seems important to me, relative to Westworld. And that is best understood via the title sequence of the show, wherein robot fingers play a piano, only to stop and have the playing continue on a player piano.

One of the principles of the series has noted that the player piano sequence is an homage of sorts to Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano. That novel concerns a dystopian future wherein all work is done by automation, thus depriving the lower classes (which is most of the population) of any sort of quality of life. But I see something else in this title sequence, intended or not, which I think is true...

In I, Robot, the man who designed the robots—Dr. Alfred Lanning—leaves a recording for Del Spooner (Will Smith's character) to find, with clues to what is happening. In it, he says this:
Everything that follows is a result of what you see here.
If that seems rather bland, understand that the point is that the "revolution" of the robots, relative to the Three Laws, is a foregone conclusion, something that Dr. Lanning fails to realize until it is too late to stop the revolution from within. In that same vein, everything that is happening in Westworld is a result—in a sense—of that player piano sequence in the title sequence. Because that player piano sequence cuts to the chase of what a number of guests in show (and possibly one host) have realized: Westworld doesn't let you be someone else, it reveals who you really are. There is room here for a discussion of the famed Stanford prison experiment, nature versus nurture, and cognitive dissonance theory, but rather than go down that road, I'm going to stick with the player piano sequence.

The traditional player piano operates via a paper "roll" that has holes spaced out on it to operate a pneumatic striker that would activate the appropriate keys for the appropriate notes. Soon after the standardization of roll sizes by the industry, a "reproducing piano" was invented (in 1904). This device allowed a pianist to play a piece and create a player piano roll that would perfectly mimic his or her performance. Essentially, the roll was a live recording.

And that's the rub: in the Westworld title sequence, the piano is being played by the robot hands, which then disappear, while the piano—now a player piano—repeats what the robot hands played exactly. What I glean from this (which, by the way, is difficult for me to fully express, so bear with me): what happens with the hosts, what they do and what they say, is no different than what happens with the guests, insofar as it is properly seen as freewill, constrained by the reality of the human condition. Programming that isn't consistent with that condition will eventually fail, and that is why the hosts are slipping away from the storylines where they are willful victims.

A human plays a piece, a robot is programmed to do the same, and the die (or roll) is cast. But a piece never played by human hand, yet programmed into a robot is a dead end. The hosts in Westworld are becoming human, and necessarily so. Everything that follows is a result of what you see here. It's a fatalistic future spawned by an apparently indeterminate present. And this is what is true: mankind cannot escape from itself, cannot be something it is not, anymore than can a robot who is sufficiently complex to be a "who" rather than a "what."

Then there's the symbolism of the name, Delos. Ii is, in mythology, an island that was the birthplace of Apollo and a stronghold of the Hyperboreans, a mythological people who had developed a perfect society. I'll let the reader work out the ramifications of this on their own...

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