In Ford We Trust
No more a benchmark for Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Turing test in today’s times is more a hobbyist’s indulgence than a purist’s pursuit. To say the least, the test has become something of an anachronism. Yet, its usage in popular culture has anything but diminished. HBOs latest sci-fi TV series Westworld is one such example that employs theories such as the Turing test, the bicameral mind hypothesis, and machine consciousness to successful storytelling effect imparting a sense of verisimilitude to the otherwise fictional narrative.
Of course, the creator, Jonathon Nolan’s (yes, he of Memento fame) intention (apart from garnering TRPs) is not to debate sound scientific AI principles but to raise pertinent questions about our existence in a world that is increasingly seeking solace in technology rather than human bonds, in the virtual rather than the real, and most importantly in the outside rather than the inside. It is here that this sci-fi meets Western TV series about humans or “guests” visiting a Western-themed amusement park, where they interact with human-like androids or “hosts” to experience a no-rules-barred existence, sucks you into its narrative about narratives.
The hosts are designed to respond in various permutations and combinations depending on circumstances and “guest” interactions. Depending on what actions the guests take (or not take) both the guests’ and hosts’ respective narratives move forward. We basically know all of this is a set up. We sort of know the end and yet we don’t know how we are going to get there. This intrigues both the viewer and guests alike.
One such “guest” in black (Ed Harris) plays the rich, sadistic villain who breaks all moral codes to let himself on a rampage of rape, pillage, murder, and cunning to unearth the deeper meaning of the park, or even if it has any.
The “hosts” are coded to seduce the “guests” into a world where sky is the limit, guilt is obsolete, and morality is redundant. Be it the naive country girl Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), designed to make men fall in love with her sensitive, caring nature, or Madame Maeve (Thandie Newton), the prostitute who serves attitude on a platter and offers pleasure for a price. Trouble brews in paradise when these “hosts” slowly start going off-character and exhibiting behaviour very unlike their kind.
- Are they evolving into much more than what they are capable of?
- Wait a minute … are they developing a consciousness?
- Maybe like us, are they too merely pawns in the hands of their maker?
Surely so (or so it seems). Controlled by their creator and founder, Dr. Robert Ford, played by, surprise … surprise, none other than the ever dependable Anthony Hopkins. His Fordship is a God-like character, an embodiment of arrogance that stems from knowledge, authority that stems from power, and vision that stems from experience. This is not too different from the “Ford” of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (BNW), yet another sci-fi classic which was a take on losing individuality in a dystopian world that uses technology to control society. It is no coincidence then that Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) is yet again a nod to BNW.
Since Westworld features a narrative inside a narrative, it is replete with references to literature. While some, like the nods to BNW, Alice in Wonderland, and Shakespeare quotes add a touch of lyrical beauty to the series, others, like the advice doled out to or by writers in the facility evoke unintentional laughter. Sample these:
Brevity is the soul of wit.
Show, don’t say.
Whoroborus (whore + ouroboros).
Yet, all of this is beautifully pulled off by good performances, an excellent score (Ramin Djawadi), and above all, Anthony Hopkins, who with his mannerisms, eccentricities, expressions, and powerful eyes blows new life into an otherwise clichéd megalomaniac character. For me, he is the strongest pillar who lends gravitas and supports the entire series on his able acting shoulders. That and the core concept that traverses multiple timelines, memories, and loops to try and trace the origins of consciousness. And if we can replicate it in machines, or if machines can become more human than humans themselves.
But, are we are pondering over the wrong questions?
Maybe it’s not how human-like machines have become but how machine-like we humans have become. That reminds me, time to stop writing and get back to my clockwork routine.