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HBO's 'Westworld' Shows Popular Appeal, Pitfalls of AI, ODU Researcher Says

By Brendan O'Hallarn

The HBO sci-fi western drama "Westworld" has helped enlarge the public's understanding of artificial intelligence, or AI, and its ramifications, and Old Dominion University faculty member says.

D.E. Wittkower, associate professor of philosophy at Old Dominion University, said popular culture, with shows such as "Westworld," has helped envision the use of AI beyond how the technology was originally conceived.

And the use of storytelling, he said, helps uncover the most evocative ways for society to work through philosophical issues, such as ethical, political and metaphysical questions.

"Most of those stories about AI aren't really worried about technology at all, but use AI as a way of thinking through how we treat humans," Wittkower said. "It's not accidental that so many of the stories about AI's rights; about abusing, assaulting AI; about their intelligence and autonomy; about their equality - it's also not accidental that so many of these stories feature female robots."

"Westworld," based on Michael Crichton's 1973 thriller of the same name, premiered in September. Starring Academy Award winner Anthony Hopkins, the program depicts a theme park of the future, featuring robots as "workers."

On the popular show, guests can interact with the robot hosts, who improvise and adapt to scenarios where guests have gunfights, take up with prostitutes and engage in other mayhem - with the added "bonus" of terrorizing the robots without consequence. Every guest is guaranteed safety, and every robot host is programmed to have each interaction erased from its memory. Except as the plot has advanced throughout the season, it's clear the robots are beginning to remember.

"Westworld" touches many ethical questions about the complex intersection of technology and people. The inclusion of AI is a vehicle to convey this understanding, Wittkower said, and frequently doesn't accurately represent the actual humanity that the technology should reflect.

"Stories about robot uprisings aren't fundamentally about AI; they're largely about colonialism and post-colonial racism and imperialism," he said. "But to whatever extent they are secondarily really concerned with AI itself, they're based on a bad understanding of what consciousness is like - or, at least, human-like consciousness."

Wittkower said there are people who value others less than they value themselves, but those individuals are seen as seriously flawed - psychopaths and serial killers.

"A consciousness of a kind we'd really recognize would recognize itself as one consciousness among many, and the social, emotional and ethical intelligence that's bound up in that recognition is basic to the kind of 'intelligence' that would be necessary for what we should understand as 'true' AI," he said.

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