There are minor spoilers in this article, that you might find in a trailer for “Westworld.”
“Westworld,” a science fiction drama show put on by HBO, is halfway through its second season and has already been renewed for a third. It is set in the future, where “guests” can visit a Wild West theme park populated entirely by humanoid robots. There, they can play the game however they want. They can fulfill Wild West quests, they can save the damsel in distress, or they can right the wrongs done by some evil mastermind in the mountains. Or they can indulge their deepest, darkest fantasies. They can rape and pillage, if they so please. The robots are eventually reset in body and mind, and the scenarios are rebooted over for a new round of guests. Again and again and again.
However, the machines may be more conscious than even they realize; some of them start to suspect that something is wrong. I can’t recommend this show enough.
While it’s probably one of the most original and compelling tellings of the theme I want to discuss, it is indicative of a wave of stories from the last few decades that share similar themes and plot devices. They center around machines of some kind that are on a journey to gain consciousness.
“Blade Runner: 2049” is another recent, very cerebral look at the humanization of robots — it is engaging and entertaining, but also rises to the intellectual level of “Ex Machina,” another outstanding film along these lines. “Altered Carbon” deals with these same general themes, especially in a primary side character. You also have “Her,” “I, Robot,” “Chappie,” the Tron films, the Matrix trilogy, the Terminator series, “WALL-E,” and many more.
Even if you go a bit further back, you still have “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” “Bicentennial Man” and “Short Circuit,” to name a few. This whole internal conflict is prevalent throughout Data’s journey in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
Sometimes they discover what it means to be human in a positive way — they learn to love and protect those closest to them, like in “Terminator 2.” Sometimes they learn the negative aspects of the human experience — to kill and to hate, like Mr. Smith in the Matrix trilogy. “Westworld” explores humanity in all its complexities, and “complexity” is part of the point.
But why does the modern filmmaking and novel world seem so interested in robots discovering humanity?
There are two reasons that have become apparent: first, we are in the middle of a technological revolution, and technology is evolving so quickly that reality often feels like fantasy. Having the phones we have now would have seemed impossible 20 years ago — and so, with a little creativity and suspension of disbelief, we have fun imagining the not-so-distant future where artificial intelligence becomes self-aware. It’s fantasy, but it doesn’t feel like that far of a stretch. The second reason is that we live in (relatively speaking) the most peaceful era of history, and it is during those brief moments that we are blessed to have the time, energy and freedom to really explore the philosophical and spiritual implications of being conscious beings.
One scene in season two of “Westworld” sticks out to me. Two characters are having a conversation, and the man essentially says that at the end of the day, dreams mean nothing — that they’re “just noise” and “not real.”
“What is real?” The woman asks.
“That which is irreplaceable.”
“Westworld” is full of this type of dialogue, between its riveting and emotional climaxes, that explore the very base things that make us human. Characters debate and disagree, which often ends in blood, but the questions reel around their heads and force the audience to ask themselves the same things.
When I set out to get my bachelor’s degree in literature, I knew my understanding of the mechanics of the English language was lacking. I could write fairly well, but if you were to ask me about syntax and specific grammatical rules, you would have been met with a dumb, blank look plastered across my face. There is so much about language that we take for granted, and many of us never think to dig back and explore those most basic aspects of our own speech.
And as I crept back to discover what makes the English language tick, these films and shows seek to explore the basic language of human consciousness. Is love purely utilitarian? Is there a difference between perception and reality? Are humans really as ‘human’ as they give themselves credit for? This is the syntax of human nature, and these stories aim to explore it through the medium of fiction and entertainment.
Images courtesy of HBO.