So the Westworld season finale aired on HBO this past Sunday, and I am left with all sorts of feelings about it. For the uninitiated, Westworld is a TV show led by husband and wife Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy. If that first name sounds familiar, it’s because Jonathan Nolan has worked on acclaimed films such as the Dark Knight trilogy and Interstellar. Westworld is a TV show adapted from the 1973 film of the same name originally written by Michael Crichton who also happens to be the creator of Jurassic Park.
Westworld depicts a world in the far future, where people are able to visit a technologically advanced Wild West themed park populated with eerily lifelike android “hosts”. In this park guests are free to indulge their fantasies however they want relatively free from consequence as the androids are unable to harm humans due to their programming. The plot progresses when something with the android programming appears to go awry, causing interference with the day to day operations of the park.
This show is one that immediately grabbed my interest. Not just because I am a self-proclaimed sci-fi junkie, but because of its themes regarding the dangers of technology and artificial intelligence. Now, Westworld is not the only depiction in popular media about this topic. To name a couple more, we have the wildly popular Netflix original Black Mirror which examines the unanticipated consequences of human dependence on technology as well as the 2014 film Ex Machina which explores the possibility of an AI passing the Turing test.
Image from Ex Machina (2014).
The reality of artificial intelligence becoming a part of our daily lives grows more and more prevalent everyday. Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant was released in 2010. Alexa, Amazon’s version of a virtual assistance was released 4 years later as part of their smart speakers system aimed at home automation. In 2017 Google announced the Pixel 2, the world’s first AI infused smartphone. In fact, Google made waves just last month in May 2018 when they announced an AI update for the Pixel 2 titled Google Duplex, an AI system built to accomplish real world tasks over the phone. A demonstration of the system at the 2018 Google I/O conference showed the system making a phone call to book a haircut, sounding exactly like a human. For those who haven’t seen it, here is a video of the demonstration below:
Not going to lie, seeing this demonstration scared me a little. And after watching the Westworld season finale this week I feel even more unsettled. Without giving any spoilers away, the show explores themes of what it means to have human consciousness and the dangers of interacting with AI that can learn to be a little too convincing. Although the show is (obviously) fiction, it is beginning to seem like it isn’t too far off from the current realm of possibilities. The Google Duplex demonstration has shown that AI is capable of sounding and behaving just like a human. The person on the other end of the phone didn’t suspect a thing.
In my opinion, this raises all kinds of ethical and social challenges. If we can use AI to mimic human conversation, how far does this go? Will we eventually replace mobile customer service reps with AI? Are companies obligated to disclose that customers may be talking to an AI and not a person? Will we as a society become less trusting and more suspicious of what we see and hear on a daily basis? These are all questions that are not for the far off future anymore, these are questions that are now relevant to modern society. It seems that the gap between science fiction and real life is no longer that far apart and it is daunting to witness that gap becoming narrower and narrower with each passing year.
What do you think about the future of AI? Leave me your thoughts in the comments below.