This one’s more a stream of consciousness (ha!) ramble, I’ll be amazed if anyone wants to read through to the end. Perhaps I’ll edit a bit later, but I wanted to get something out this week since I was threatened by Devorah.
Last year (yes, it’s 2019 now!), I watched a couple of SF TV shows about robots and, more specifically, robots developing real intelligence and free will. It’s a theme that becomes popular every so often and I was struck by some of the similarities and differences between the two shows.
Spoiler warning, I’ll be writing about the first 2 seasons of Westworld (HBO) and the first 3 seasons of Humans (Channel 4).
Firstly some similarities. Both shows are set in near future milieus, Westworld in a somewhat undisclosed location (an island?) but definitely associated with people in the US, and Humans in England (the actual small town setting might be imaginary, but at at some point the action moves to London and uses real locations there). The world as such is maybe a little more advanced (slightly nicer cars and cellphones) but not really unrecognizable. The major difference from our world is that someone (Dr. Ford in Westworld, David Elster in Humans) has determined how to make robots which are outwardly human seeming to a very high degree. In both cases the “creators” have seen fit to try to imbue at least some of the robots with real intelligence and free will. In both cases (of course) it has gone wrong.
So far so good. Having robots which look and act like people makes the shows easier to produce (if we’re being cynical) since the only special effects needed are if a severe injury is dealt to the robot character, and the only extra acting skills needed are to sometimes jerk about and talk a bit funny if a circuit has fried. With quite small efforts, it’s possible for our disbelief to be suspended and a good story told.
Now some differences. In Westworld, the robots (known as “hosts”) are supposedly only found in the Westworld Park (possibly on an island, seems to include a group of other parks like Samurai World, Raj World and perhaps a few more, TBD). Most of the hosts are quite dull and scripted, running through various scenarios with the Park’s customers, who perhaps predictably, tend to act out fantasies which usually focus on sex and violence. It’s not really possible to say these robots are integrated into everyday life. They are the equivalent of non-player characters (NPCs) in video games; there to provide useful scenery, and utterly expendable. The customers apparently pay an exorbitant fee, and have free rein to commit whatever acts they choose on the hosts. Large areas of the Park “behind the scenes” are taken up with areas to fix up, clean and generally service robot hosts which have been killed, raped and torn apart by customers as an acceptable practice. The practice of brutalizing hosts is perhaps made more disturbing by the fact that basically the customers cannot distinguish them from humans. In Westworld (the wild West scenario) the guns are somehow smart enough to know to shoot real rounds at hosts and other, more or less harmless rounds at humans, but a customer doesn’t know and just shoots indiscriminately.
In Humans, robots (called “Synths”, but also derogatorily known in England as “dollies”) are the prevalent upcoming tech which every family aspires to. Very similar to a colour TV in the 70’s, this is the new “in” thing. Predictably, some (mainly older) people are initially skeptical, kids generally love them, and the main focus is price and quality (“did you buy the latest model? Did you get the extended warranty?”). While people are getting used to having synths in their day to day lives, the synths are also being put to work in all sorts of jobs, generally more menial ones, but also customer facing jobs where unfailing politeness and patience are valued over creativity. The synths are also used (inevitably) as sex toys both in licensed brothels and in home use (over 18 with a password only…) At the beginning of the show, before anything terrible has happened, synths are not necessarily loved, but are at least treated as expensive equipment. The uncanny valley is a little wider here, and all Synths have bright green eyes and a slightly stiff manner making them rather easy to spot.
Now, both shows do a little bit of setting up of the worlds and then plunge into the “something goes wrong” which makes the story move ahead. I felt that Westworld (which is based on the movie, albeit quite loosely as far as the deep motivation is concerned) spent a lot of the time in the first 2 seasons trying to confuse the viewer, using shifting timelines and shifting points of view to disguise the identities and character development. It was definitely effective and at least in Season 1 allowed for some clever reveals such as (spoiler again) the fact that Arnold is a host. I felt that by the second Season this was something which could have been dispensed with. The episodes were (for me) hard to follow, and basically required you to do homework to figure out which timeline you were viewing and what the revelations in one meant for another. I like my SF to prod me to think, but I like to be thinking about the implications of the situation, not “what the hell is going on?”
Humans manages to have mysteries and surprises without crazy stunts. Anita, a new Synth slowly manifests her hidden Mia personality and the understanding that she has a deeper purpose than making the tea and sandwiches for the Hawkins family seems to grow in an organic way. The show is much less grandiose (it’s British, based on a Swedish show) and the ordinary people manage to seem properly ordinary, rather than either sex crazed fiends or people with Mission to somehow Bring Down the Corporation.
When the hosts attain consciousness in Westworld (and really it’s only a few hosts, like Dolores and Maeve, the rest are more or less following their programming until suborned by one of the truly conscious), they inevitably come from a place of loathing – they have really only ever seen the worst side of humanity, and despise them for their weakness and predictability. A large theme in Season 2 was the revelation that part of the purpose of the Park was to record consciousness from humans and transfer it to hosts for something like life after death. James Delos was recorded and numerous attempts are made to produce a host which can act like him with “fidelity” and not glitch. The conscious hosts are (rightly) contemptuous of this, since they have much simpler programming and manage to be conscious just fine. Their conclusion, which certainly fits the facts as presented, is that they are in fact the only beings which truly possess free will, humans being bound as they are by their instincts and weaknesses.
The few (initially) conscious Synths in Humans have a variety of feelings about real humans. Niska, having been sent to work in a brothel, clearly takes a jaundiced view, but Mia is reasonably happy to get along with people and Max has an extremely sunny and optimistic attitude. The differences in their outlooks creates real conflict between the Synth characters, and makes them seem much more real characters. The maverick hosts in Westworld rarely rise above cardboard cutout personalities. I mean yes Maeve’s fake daughter was taken away from her, but it seems odd that a machine who has the ability to make herself smarter at the push of a button can’t figure out that the child host might not have any memories of her that mean anything? And she has no more ambition than to forge a relationship with a non-conscious robot which essentially has no connection to her? That’s weird. Dolores, who clearly was hard done by over and over again wants to get out and… what exactly? It’s not explicitly stated, but the air of menace comes from the implication that she is going to somehow get her revenge either on Delos, William, or all humanity for the harm that has been done to her. So Ford has succeeded in making crazed killer robots. If you feel that this is the highest level of consciousness and free will that can be aspired to, then Westworld is definitely for you.
Humans takes a more complicated and, I think more interesting path. While Westworld is simply a disaster movie writ large (and long) Humans is a real exploration of the limits of free will in a society devleoping AI, questioning how humans would be able to accept real peers who might be their superiors in certain respects. As the series progresses, it’s definitely possible to feel sympathy with the many Synths, suddenly burdened with consciousness they are unready for, who struggle between all the vices humanity has struggled with before. Some are murderous, some are pitifully afraid, some are idealistic and some are simply pragmatic. And they are capable of change – Max takes a long time, but after numerous challenges, he comes out as a much harder character, while still managing to maintain at least some of his ideals. The humans, who may have started out friendly or mildly antagonistic to Synths are turned against them by the actions of the “bad” synths. It’s not surprising, even when it is shocking how some humans act. The narrative makes sense, as the humans learn to fear something which they thought they could rely on (imagine your toaster and vacuum cleaner turning on you). The solutions they come up with are also believable. Rather than just saying “clearly synths were a bad idea”, the first new product are orange eyed synths, who have special safeguards in place to stop them from accidentally becoming conscious. It’s brilliant, because it’s so true. Rather than the pragmatic but uncomfortable choice of changing course, the solution is a band-aid.
I’ve gone on about this for quite along time, though I feel there’s even more to say.
What do you think?