Westworld Virtually

‘Westworld’ is one of my favourite science fiction films from the 1970’s. Drawing its influence from the ‘imagineering’ theme parks and animatronics of Walt Disney, this was Michael Crichton’s first cautionary tale of a theme park going into meltdown that would later evolve into the ‘Jurassic Park’ franchise.

But it is also more than that. In an article by Emily Asher-Perrin the author has written:

  • ‘Westworld’ is not meant to be a cautionary tale about the terror of technology. It’s a cautionary tale about humanity’s failure to recognize its own fallible nature, our tendency to believe that all innovation is good innovation, and our inability to see past the monetary value of progress. All of these themes are commonly present in Michael Crichton’s work, and ‘Westworld’ offers another fascinating backdrop to consider these foibles.

The moral implications of creating humanoid robots complete with Artificial Intelligence have since been explored in such cult classics as ‘Bladerunner’ and with the continuing progress of technology accompanied by a lack of progress in human nature it seems as though the questions raised in ‘Westworld’ are more pertinent than ever. Indeed it is no coincidence that HBO have recently released a new television series from this franchise.

‘Westworld’ challenges us to think about the value of human life and whether sentient beings should be treated as objects of pleasure?

We have to acknowledge that some human beings have treated other human beings as nothing more than ‘objects’ for pleasure or profit. This is true historically and even now, for example, slave trafficking continues to the present day. Dr Molefi Kete Asante stated in a Slavery Remembrance Day memorial lecture in 2007:

  • One might claim that the leading opinion-makers, philosophers, and theologians of the European enslavers organised the category of blackness as property value. We Africans were, in effect, without soul, spirit, emotions, desires, and rights.

Historic arguments of whether African slaves possessed souls amid European academics of the eighteenth century resonates to a degree with the speculation of science fiction writers today concerning artificial intelligence becoming self aware and thus possessing rights and dare it even be said, a ‘soul’?

The question remains – Should sentient beings be treated as objects of pleasure?

Crash Dummy

Although we may be a long way from creating an adult theme park in which we might imagine that humanoid robots have rights, the world of video gaming is coming ever closer to meeting the darkest fantasies of our human nature.

I am not  a prude about video games but they have come a long way since the days I used to queue at fairgrounds to play ‘Space Invaders’ as a young boy. Although it is in its infancy, ‘virtual reality’ gaming is now a marketable commodity in the living room and is sure to develop just as mobile phones have developed exponentially in the past two decades.

Although the inspiration for ‘Westworld’ may have come from Disneyland it seems that virtual reality will bring the moral issues of this cult classic closer to home sooner than we may imagine. ‘Westworld’ is virtually here and it beckons the question of how this may affect our moral compass as human beings as virtual gaming develops and becomes more accessible. Paul Tassi puts it like this in a recent article:

  • ‘Westworld’ is essentially the endgame for video games. As a physical space on the show, it’s obviously not a virtual experience, but it might as well be, as it deals with all the same issues. I’m not worried about video game characters becoming self-aware and trying to murder me, but I am a little concerned about the ability for nearly anyone to act out wildly violent fantasies in increasingly realistic scenarios that may someday contain characters that feels as close to real as you can get.

CyberfizhVR

In a Storymen podcast on ‘The Theology of Westworld’, a Jewish Rabbi and a Christian Minister discuss the dehumanising effect of a theme park with no moral rules and the implications of this on the human spirit. Technology is not intrinsically evil, it is merely a tool. But technology often raises moral questions as to what it can empower us to do.

When mobile phones first became accessible nobody envisioned the moral debates we would have about social media over mobile phones today. To that degree most people would agree that mobile phones have not only changed in themselves in the past twenty years but have radically changed the way we communicate and function as human beings. Studies have shown for example, how these technologies stimulate dopamine within the human brain and the addictive behaviour that can incite.

As we are witnessing the birth of virtual reality gaming on a viable commercial basis in the domestic market, some questions emerge in my mind on the future of this technology:

  1. What may virtual reality empower us to do, for good or ill?
  2. What behaviour will virtual reality incite as it develops?
  3. Are we on the cusp of creating a digital ‘Westworld’?

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