“HBO’s TV series Westworld is a remake and expansion of the 1973 film by writer Michael Crichton about an immersive theme park where guests can interact with artificially intelligent robots programmed to act out cowboy stories from the Old West. The film follows a similar pattern as Crichton’s 1990 novel Jurassic Park, but instead of genetically engineered dinosaurs, Westworld features artificially intelligent robots. The robots malfunction and eventually start to attack the park’s guests. The HBO version of Westworld adds a new wrinkle to the story: the robots’ violent turn is a result of their becoming self-aware. They gradually realize they are robots and attempt to stage a revolution against their human masters in the name of freedom.

Such warnings about the dangers of self-aware artificial intelligence (AI) are familiar in science-fiction films, from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to The Terminator (1984) to recent standout Ex Machina (2014). Like its predecessors, the new version of Westworld is essentially a Frankenstein story in which an artificial life form turns on its human creators. But the TV series is not simply a cautionary tale about AI technology. It warns us against the uncritical optimism of scientific utopianism, but it also critiques today’s culture of social media and video games, embedding these themes in an overarching philosophical and neuroscientific exploration of consciousness and free will.”

This Postmodern Realities episode is a conversation with Journal author John McAteer about his Volume 41 #4 feature article,“HBO’s Westworld and the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence.”

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