WestWorld and the moral quandaries of AI

Films have always been described as a mirror to our society. However I think that all media that we consume is a reflection on our thoughts, aspirations and worries. All games that we play, TV that we watch, books we read. Sometimes this same media raises questions that our society must seek to answer. WestWorld1 manages to be such a media. Crafted by the brilliant Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, it poses questions to us that we need to resolve in our society. While some might dismiss it as just a TV series that should not be taken seriously, it would be inappropriate to do so without good discussions.

The core idea of WestWorld as given by Michael Crichton is just a theme park with lifelike robots that goes wrong. Crichton was a fan of technology going haywire in the hands of wrong people (See – Jurassic park, Sphere). However, the current execution of the idea in the form of the TV series “WestWorld”  by HBO, is an amazing pool of moral questions. The core tenet of the story is AI and its place in society. One of the most amazing moments of the series is an AI asking about the boundaries of consciousness. If an AI can have the same emotions as a human, should it not be treated the same ?

These questions are getting more relevant day by day. We can already see self driving cars on roads, AI is getting smarter by the day. We might not have cracked consciousness yet, but then we don’t have a boundary for it either. All major companies have a heavy research division working to create better AI. Sam Harris had a beautiful comment on his podcast about the visible form of robots as well. If a roomba has the same intelligence as a human, it still looks like a robot 2. Easier for us to move to the cognitive schema of a robot. However if we get humanoid robots that can be self-aware (looking like the I-Robot versions), it would become difficult to ignore the similarities. This is exactly what WestWorld explores, humanoid self aware AI. Boston Dynamics already has the “Spot ” robot that looks like a dog. The online community erupts in discomfort when “Spot” is kicked in demo videos.

The question then arises of the placement of such AI in the society hierarchy. Should they be treated as slaves, just because they are non-living ? Do we need to formulate AI rights ? On the other hand, we have folks that think even animal rights are a stretch. That only humans need any semblance of respect from other humans. Discussing AI rights in an environment that has human right violations all around, feels like a farce. Of course, we might never break the self-awareness barrier with AI. But still we must dissect the possibility.

All the terrifying scenarios imagined by the Science fiction writers might lead us to believe that AI will be an evil form that will destroy all humans. Elon Musk has even expressed concern about it 2. It might even be turn out to be true. We need to discuss and explore all scenarios. However, we as a society tend to ignore change until it stares us in the face. Most of the countries still do not have laws for online crimes. We would need a radical shift to incorporate AI into this structure. Worst of all, the majority of public is still unaware of the leaps taken by AI in the recent years. People lump all AI into one group and then try to think about it. If WestWorld can bring AI into the discussions of the general public, it will be a great step forward. The AI revolution is certainly not going to start with a bang but with a whimper.

Footnotes

1. WestWorld on Imdb
2. Abusing Dolores
3. Elon Must AI concerns