'Westworld' and 'Ready Player One' show how our relationship to artificial intelligence has changed

  • Simon Quarterman and Thandie Newton star in season two of "Westworld."

    Simon Quarterman and Thandie Newton star in season two of "Westworld." Courtesy of John P. Johnson, HBO

By Scott Tobias
Washington Post
Posted4/29/2018 7:28 AM

In the original film "Westworld" (1973), written and directed by an up-and-coming novelist named Michael Crichton, the Delos corporation operates a kind of Disney World for depraved adults, a series of amusement parks where they can interact with uncannily lifelike robots in various environments.

The parks include Medievalworld and Romanworld, but the bulk of the movie's action takes place in Westworld, where visitors are invited to shoot at android attractions like the Gunslinger (Yul Brenner) without fear of retaliation. All that changes when a technical glitch spreads through the parks like a virus, and suddenly the hosts are attacking the guests, not the other way around.

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Of the many differences between Crichton's "Westworld" and the HBO version, which started its second season last Sunday, the most telling is the hands. For all their technical brilliance, the engineers in Crichton's film could never get the hands right: If visitors needed to tell who is and isn't a robot, they could look at the conspicuous silicon rings around the joints and know they weren't about to shoot (or otherwise violate) a human being.

That little detail might spoil the fantasy of a truly authentic Old West experience, but it's also a clear line of demarcation between human and machine. The Gunslinger is plainly a robot, and when it goes haywire, there's nothing morally wrong about killing it.

The hosts in HBO's "Westworld" are not only seamless humanoids, but from the start, they've been more complex and sympathetic than their flesh-and-blood counterparts, who are consumed by pettiness, egotism, cruelty, greed and the other vices that come with being human. They also represent a profound shift in how the culture is coming to terms with artificial intelligence -- a change that's reflected, too, in Steven Spielberg's recent "Ready Player One," which grafts an entirely habitable virtual world that co-exists seamlessly with the real one.

There are more connections between the two works, which both draw heavily from the screen science fiction of the past but update it for a radically changed world. Spielberg directed "Jurassic Park" from Crichton's 1990 novel, and we can see the original 1973 "Westworld" as a proto-"Jurassic Park" for Crichton, an early run-through of the chaos theory that would upend an amusement park built around dangerous scientific advancement and corporate hubris. We could fear the idea of malfunctioning machines while safely categorizing them as "the other," like some malevolent appliance that could be decommissioned and consigned to the scrap heap.

Tye Sheridan, left, as Wade Watts, Olivia Cooke as Samantha Cook, Win Morisaki as Daito and Philip Zhao as Sho star in "Ready Player One."
Tye Sheridan, left, as Wade Watts, Olivia Cooke as Samantha Cook, Win Morisaki as Daito and Philip Zhao as Sho star in "Ready Player One." - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

But the new "Westworld" is airing at a time when we're not only more comfortable with our machines and devices, but have integrated them so thoroughly into our everyday lives that they're more like extensions of us than mere utilities. For the humans -- both on screen and off -- the fear in "Westworld" isn't a computer glitch, but the worry that technology will evolve past us, resulting in synthetic creations that are stronger, smarter, more durable and perhaps worthier of occupying space on Earth. In this future, it's people who are the crude, malfunctioning machines, destined for the scrap heap. Earth 2.0 doesn't need us anymore.

Less than a month ago, the screen adaptation of Ernest Cline's novel "Ready Player One" also reflected on the past and present, and how our relationship with machines has changed. By 2045, when the film opens, humans have rendered the planet virtually uninhabitable, a dystopia in which American cities are endless slums and the have-nots, like its hero, Wade Watts, are relegated to rickety trailer-park towers.

Their only escape is a virtual world called the OASIS, a pristine and endlessly malleable environment where they can reinvent themselves and enjoy the freedoms that they're denied when the VR goggles are off. The OASIS and HBO's Westworld are both modeled after "sandbox" video games, such as "Grand Theft Auto," which offer specific challenges but allow for open exploration, too.


Much like "Westworld," "Ready Player One" looks back on an era in science fiction when artificial intelligence was an out-of-control "other," rather than a threat that extended from us. The mastermind behind the OASIS, an self-effacing supernerd named James Halliday, has designed it to reflect his obsession with '80s culture, including popular science-fiction like "Tron" and "WarGames."

The machines in "Tron" and "WarGames" are capable of learning and evolving: In the former, the diabolical Master Control Program brags about running things "900 to 1,200 times better than any human." In the latter, a military supercomputer has to be talked down from starting World War III. They're not threatening to create new, superior worlds, like the OASIS or a Westworld run by the hosts. They're threatening to obliterate the ones we have.

The new season of "Westworld" opens with the androids still in revolt against their human oppressors, but should they prevail, what will they do with their freedom? Perhaps they'll enslave or destroy, just like the faceless CPUs in "Tron" and "WarGames," or continue on a path of bloody revenge, like the Gunslinger in Crichton's version. But it's more likely that they'll have to think about the future, too, and what the world will look like once they lay claim to it.

In this Western environment, they're the new pioneers, running roughshod over the natives and seizing territory for themselves. It's now their responsibility to figure out where their newfound agency takes them, and to live with the terrible mistakes they'll surely make along the way.

In 2018, artificial intelligence is too integrated into everyday life for us to keep it at arm's length -- in conversations we have with Alexa or Siri, in the automation of industry, or in the hidden algorithms on Google ads and social media that monitor and accommodate our behavior. We still worry about AI rebellion, but mainly over how it contributes to our own obsolescence.

The hosts in "Westworld" might be a more evolved species than we are, capable of creating idealized environments that reflect Wade's description of the OASIS, "a place where the limits of reality are your own imagination." In the future realms of "Westworld" and "Ready Player One," it's humans who are reduced to ghosts in the machine, infecting these newly independent artificial beings with all their flaws and moral lapses. Their glitches are our glitches, too.

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