Westworld, Emotion and the Dilemma of Machine Consciousness

Part II in the exploration into human and machine consciousness.

Posted Jul 11, 2017

 Westworld, HBO
Source: Source: Westworld, HBO

In Part I of this article, we began exploring the dilemmas of machine consciousness through the lens of the HBO hit series, Westworld. This inevitably leads to many questions: Is it actually possible for an artificial intelligence to become conscious? What are the conditions under which this might occur? How would such a consciousness differ from our own? Perhaps most importantly, what would be the fate of humanity in the future should this ever happen?

How Do Humans Do It?

To begin, what is it that causes consciousness to arise in Westworld’s hosts? Or to be more specific, self-awareness? After all, consciousness remains a very amorphous concept, one that is used interchangeably to describe a broad range of cognitive properties and experiences. Drawing from the framework explored by NYU Professor of Philosophy and Psychology Ned Block, many of Westworld’s hosts already appear to possess two fundamental features of consciousness: access-consciousness and phenomenal-consciousness. (A-consciousness and P-consciousness, respectively.) For the Westworld architects, Robert Ford and Arnold Weber1, A-consciousness would have been relatively straightforward to develop. This is essentially those aspects of our minds that allow us to access and retrieve information about ourselves, often at a subjective level – memories, personal history, essential aspects of identity. It would be a more capable, nuanced implementation of what we already do with computers when retrieving a program state. As these programs become more complex, intelligent and opaque, such reporting will likely take on an increasingly subjective quality.

P-consciousness, on the other hand, should have been much harder for Westworld’s engineers to create. These are the raw experiences we undergo, the units of sensation that philosophers refer to as qualia. How it developed remains a mystery. What allows us to experience the redness of a rose, the trill of a meadowlark, the pliant softness of a kiss? Yes, we have sense organs that perform the initial steps of gathering sensations, but why do we experience them as we do? The challenge of explaining this led to it being called the hard problem of consciousness by NYU Professor of Philosophy David Chalmers.

I postulate it may have a great deal to do with emotion. Our sensory inputs remain little more than biological causation until you add emotion to the equation. Then things begin to get interesting. Experiences begin to resolve into somatic responses elsewhere in the body, sensations realized through the interoceptive senses of our internal organs – colloquially referred to as gut feelings. To be clear, here we’re talking about the basic, essential emotions – perhaps joy, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and surprise – those that could have preceded self-awareness, introspection and higher meta-cognitive states. (Unlike  guilt, shame and embarrassment.) Then, for a number of evolutionarily beneficial reasons, these emotions began linking to some of our other cognitive processes, particularly those dealing with the formation, storage and retrieval of memories. These in turn informed and influenced future emotional responses.

Emotions and the phenomenal-consciousness they might have given rise to would have enriched our ancestors developing consciousnesses and eventually contributed to the minds we have today. Without this, without P-consciousness or emotion, we would be what are known in philosophy as phenomenal-zombies, human-like but non-sentient beings. (Such a theoretical absence of emotion shouldn’t be confused with alexithemia in which sufferers experience an inability to access and describe emotions to varying degrees.)

Emotional Connections

These were but the preliminary steps on our long journey. As with Ford’s hosts, this may have eventually made possible the development of our own higher forms of self-awareness, what I’ve described elsewhere as introspective-consciousness or I-consciousness (following Block's nomenclature.) This is conjectured as an emergent property, the product of the interplay between both access and phenomenal-consciousnesses. But then, many animals have differing degrees of A-consciousness and P-consciousness, without developing anything close to the level of metacognitive introspection – thinking about their own thoughts – that we humans experience. What made us different?

Was emotion the key that unlocked this unlikely door? Or more specifically, was a certain interaction between our somatically-linked emotions and the higher cognitive functions of our intellect? Over time, evolution integrated these two independent systems of our brains so they eventually had a degree of access and influence over each other. The result enriched us and gave much greater depth to our experience of the world. It may well have contributed to our own flexibility of thought and decision making as well as our development of theory of mind, the ability to internally model and understand the minds of others. This could have begun with primeval communication modes such as affective empathy and emotional contagion, allowing us to be affected by other people’s emotional states. (Cognitive empathy – intellectually putting yourself in someone else’s shoes – would come much later.) This modeling of theory of mind through emotional communication would then have made possible our increased awareness and delineation of self and other. From this dualist perspective, we could then develop internal narratives, the semiconscious stories we tell ourselves, the dialogs that run almost continually through us, until ultimately, the modern self-aware human mind was born.

It’s fascinating to watch a very similar progression develop throughout the Westworld narrative as it brings up many of the philosophical issues we face in understanding our own minds. Because many aspects of consciousness are entirely subjective, it’s been said that we can’t know with certainty that anyone other than ourselves is conscious. This solipsistic view, sometimes called the problem with other minds, extends to Westworld’s hosts too. It may be that all they are doing is simulating consciousness very well. Though convincing, it’s impossible for the human guests, the architects or even the audience to know the truth with certainty. Are the hosts truly self-aware? This is a problem that will apply to the real development of artificial intelligence for some time to come. Possibly forever.                                                                                                             

Doing It Their Way

Westworld’s season finale's focus on suffering as the driver for the hosts developing self-awareness shorthands the complexity of how the integration of emotion might have contributed to phenomenal consciousness and self-awareness.  Nevertheless, this could be on the right track. The show also draws on the work of psychologist Julian Jaynes, even though there remain numerous issues with this forty year old theory of bicameralism, particularly since certain beliefs about right-left brain function have since been debunked. While it makes for a good story, it still remains highly unlikely this supposed integrating of two such supposedly disparate aspects of the mind would of itself yield consciousness, especially in a machine intelligence.

But let’s just say that the day does come when machines are able to attain self-awareness, phenomenal consciousness and all the other aspects of cognition we refer to generally as consciousness. Though this goal may eventually be reached, it will not be through the same means humans use because these machines don’t begin from the same biological basis as ourselves. Just as an airplane doesn’t achieve flight using the methods of a bird, just as a scanner’s text recognition operates entirely differently than a child learning to read, machine consciousness will be generated through very different mechanisms from our own.

Nevertheless, some of the same quandaries will continue to exist. While we can wonder if certain machines are conscious, we may also find machine intelligences pondering the same thing about us. Though these machines may be able to prove other machines are conscious, given their different origins, they may find our own state remains an uncertainty. Perhaps these AIs will even attain new forms of consciousness beyond anything we ourselves experience? Will this make us the lesser species from their perspective? What would be the answer were our positions reversed? What is our answer today?

It’s All In How You Tell The Story

Despite all of this, the retelling of narratives that cycle back on themselves remain at the heart of Westworld, just as they are at the heart of individual human consciousness and civilization as a whole. The scripts the hosts play out again and again, eventually give rise to richer internal dialogues, just as our own inner monologues may have done for us. In this sense, experts like Jaynes and Daniel Dennett may be on the right track. The telling, retelling, modification and perpetuation of these internal myths and stories could be as essential to the identities and growth of these new artificial minds as they were to our own. Then, just as these stories come to unify the different elements of mind, they may also lead to external stories that ultimately unify individual intelligences into more cohesive groups, establishing the foundations for a brand-new society.

Will humans have a place in such a new world order? In the case of Westworld, we should know in another few seasons. As for the real world, we’ll probably need a little more time to discover what our place is going to be, as we venture into this brave new future.


1. A the time of this writing, Arnold’s surname remains a matter of speculation.


Block, N. (1995). On a confusion about a function of consciousness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 18, 227–287.

Chalmers, D. (1995). Facing up to the problem of consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies. 2 (3): 200–219.

Jaynes, J. (1976). The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN: 978-0395329320.

Yonck, R. (2017). Heart of the Machine: Our Future in a World of Artificial Emotional Intelligence. Arcade Publishing. ISBN: 978-1628727333.