Back on HBO for a second season, Westworld explores the limits and vagaries of our creativity in a synthetic universe. One might expect that the world invented by the fictional company Sweetwater is light-years away from reality. And yet, through the recent advances in robotics, AI, biotechnology and virtual reality, the creation of a real-life Westworld might be closer to “near future.”
The first necessary element to build a Westworld-like park would be to design androids that would act like Sweetwater’s “hosts.” According to Rodolphe Gelin, director of research at Softbank Robotics, the 3D printing technologiesseen in the series already exist. With extremely precise robotic arms, it’s not unreasonable to imagine the creation of these kinds of androids. The fluid movements of robots like Toyota’s T-HR3 and Boston Dynamics’ Atlas are benchmarks for our rapid progression in the field.
We’d then need to design a substance resembling human skin. For the artist Amy Karle, interviewed by Motherboard, this is a completely realistic idea: to make it, we would need “a mix of synthetic fibers and collagen, which mimics the heat and texture and general experience of human skin.” This way, it would be possible to “synthesize” bodies similar to ours. At the moment, according to Newsweek, they are already beginning to be equipped with an electronic skin that gives them a sense of touch almost like a human being.
Printing life in 3D
Once the bodies of these robots are created, we’d need to give them organic human traits. And as James Horton explains in How it works, that will definitely be possible with biotechnologies, a new and momentous industry. Particularly in the field of regenerative medicine, scientists at Harvard have already made huge progress, creating human organs in bioreactors with the help of stem cells. That’s also the route taken by startups like Biobots, which prints synthetic ears used in grafts.
Finally, we need to give them human expressions. The progress in Hanson Robotics’ android Sophia, which is able to imitate 63 facial movements, or ultra-realistic androids by Japanese researcher Hiroshi Ishiguro, is on the way to crossing the frontier between human and synthetic life. Mimetic hybrids as seen in Westworld could be less than a century away.
However, if we’re to come anywhere near the Westworld humanoids, we’ll need to give these robots a conscience. And for Kate Compton, member of the Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz, this complexity so far remains out of reach. We’d need for artificial intelligences to be able to behave like humans: with feelings, a conscience, and most of all, a capacity for understanding and interacting with their environment.
And yet, recent advances in the field of AI have arrived faster than predicted, including the progress made by artificial neuron networks in deep learning. Oxford professor Nando De Freitas’s goal is to reproduce the capacity for the brain to understand an image in robots – in order to let them develop representations of the world and to imagine scenarios, as the TV series’ hosts do.
As Ashley Rodriguez explains in Quartz, imagining a place like Westworld is likely nearer to us than the actual reality, at least for now. Construction of so-called “immersive” parks around the world illustrate the growing interest in these believable virtual universes. The success of attractions like TheVoid, for example, confirm the public’s interest in these hyperrealistic experiences. “It will probably be much easier, less costly, and more practical […] to have these kinds of virtual reality experiences in the future,” Martin Ford explains in Vulture.
As Martin Ford continues, developing artificial intelligences is without a doubt the main obstacle in creating a real Westworld. But as AI continues to make progress in the next decade, we shouldn’t underestimate its coming technological upheavals. It’s not improbable that one day — not far from now — we will have the technology to imitate several aspects of the series. We just shouldn’t use it to create a dystopia.