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Westworld, Emotion, and the Dilemma of Machine Consciousness

The science fiction series explores issues of consciousness in man and machine.

 John P. Johnson/HBO
Source: John P. Johnson/HBO

In HBO’s hit series, Westworld, android hosts play out carefully constructed scripts in the process of entertaining the amusement park’s wealthy guests. All is repetitive business as usual until one day when the park’s chief architect introduces a new feature into the android hosts’ programming in the ongoing effort to make the experiences they provide more realistic and lifelike. That is when everything changes.

With that new program, the hosts begin to behave increasingly strangely. Almost as if they were waking from a dream. Actually, that's not so far from the truth, because from that moment through the rest of the season, the hosts are “waking” into consciousness.

In many respects, Westworld is the ideal vehicle for exploring the dilemmas of consciousness. A nearly complete reboot of the 1973 Michael Crichton sci-fi thriller by the same name, Westworld is a technologically miraculous amusement park in which human “guests” interact with lifelike android “hosts.” Though incredibly realistic, from the outset these hosts are considered to lack sufficient consciousness to be thought of as alive. They are mere automatons, running scripts as mechanically as the saloon’s player piano. They exist merely to perform elaborate storylines for the entertainment of jaded, well-to-do guests who seek relief from their own boring, increasingly dehumanizing existences.

However, in order to offer continuing improvements for the park’s guests (among other reasons), the co-architect of this world, Robert Ford (played by the brilliant Anthony Hopkins) introduces a subtle new feature to the hosts: a reverie. These reveries are tiny repeated gestures linked to a programmed memory, a synthesized expression meant to suggest each host has its own emotional history. The reveries are purportedly intended to perfect the illusion that these androids are as human as you or me. In fact, this marks the beginning of their transition to fully conscious, self-aware beings.

Rise of the Machines

This is a critical moment in the series, just as it may be a critical stage awaiting us in the not so distant future: the rise of machine consciousness. Make no mistake about it: despite enormous advances and milestones passed in recent years, machine intelligence in the real world is only just getting started. These intelligences will continue to accelerate in their development for decades, if not centuries. Ultimately, they may far surpass us by nearly every metric, unseating humanity from its long-held perch at the apex of intelligence. But can and will machines ever actually attain consciousness? That truly is the Big Question.

Why do you perceive the world the way you do? What is it that makes you reflect on it from your perspective at all? Is the way you experience each sensation and stimulus the same as everyone else or is it as unique as your own fingerprint?

These are hardly new questions. They have been at the core of philosophical thought from long before Descartes and Locke, possibly sparked by the very origins of consciousness itself.

The mysteries of experience and existence have driven introspective exploration throughout the millennia, manifesting in rituals that are as personal as they are ubiquitous. Perhaps the most universal of these rituals is storytelling. This pervasive drive enables us to explore the major questions of our existence, opening windows onto ourselves unlike any other.

For over a century, we have manifested our obsession with storytelling through increasingly technological means: radio dramas, cinema, television, video games and presumably soon many more. These are today’s mirrors, the media by which we explore our humanity again and again.

In few places has this been so evident as reflected in the mirror of recent science fiction. We have repeatedly turned this looking glass on ourselves to examine the threats and anxieties we see manifest in this age of technological wonder. Growing worries about losing our livelihoods to technology, the increasingly capable machines and software we surround ourselves with, have given us new existential concerns. These technologies continue to grow by leaps and bounds with no evident end in sight. So what happens when even consciousness itself is no longer unique? What happens when the last bastion of supposed human exceptionalism falls?

Of course, it’s easy to take a reductionist view of our own brains and say that, of course machines will one day become conscious. It’s nearly as easy to say there must be something essential, something vital in our own inner workings that will make it impossible to replicate conscious thought, whether that depends on a deity-bestowed soul or some unknown feature of natural neural dynamics. The fact is we simply don’t know yet.

Setting the Stage

What we do know is that advances will continue to be made and the verisimilitude of these systems will increase. As is both explicitly and implicitly asserted in Westworld, if the object of our attention becomes sufficiently realistic in its emulation of consciousness, we will fill in the gaps to maintain the illusion. The object doesn’t need to be truly conscious for us to confer consciousness on it, though we may do this on a subconscious level. This is an important aspect of our own intelligence. As an evolutionarily acquired efficiency, if something appears to us to have volition and free will, we’ve learned to give it the benefit of the doubt. To our early evolving minds that behavior indicated some level of awareness and we’ve learned we’d better respect that. This wasn’t simply a matter of economy; we did this as a function of survival. Better to attribute these features and anticipate a certain level of threat in order to survive, than not to and potentially be killed and eaten.

So here we have a predilection to act as though something is conscious despite knowledge and experience that tells us the contrary. Cars, boats, Tamagotchis, and Furbies, we easily fall into habits that see these machines as conscious actors, even though we know better. It doesn’t even matter that the technology doesn’t look like us, though that helps as well. As MIT professor Sherry Turkle points out, many of these devices push our “Darwinian buttons.” In other words, because certain features or actions remind us of ourselves, we instinctively turn to certain patterns of behavior because it’s more efficient to do so, seen from an evolutionary standpoint.

This is backed up by observations made by Stanford professors Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves, in their book “The Media Equation.” We also tend to want to interact with much of our technology as if it was a social actor, as if it was another person. This, I maintain, is one reason why we continue to design and develop computer interfaces that are increasingly natural. We want our technologies to interact with us on our own terms, not the other way around. Gesture recognition, touch screens, voice activation—these are all progressing in this direction. Now we are continuing this trend as we enter the era of affective computing—computers and robots that can read, interpret and even influence our emotions. The field is growing rapidly and has been forecast to nearly quintuple in global revenue over the second half of this decade.

In my best-selling new book, Heart of the Machine: Our Future in a World of Artificial Emotional Intelligence, I explore many of the changes and potential repercussions the development of these emotionally aware technologies hold in store for us. But perhaps none of these is so critical to our future as the potential development of machine consciousness. As it turns out, there are many reasons emotional awareness might be essential in the development of future artificial intelligences, just as it may have been vital in the rise of our own self-awareness and introspection. It's an idea we’ll explore further in Part II of this article tomorrow.

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