In Depth: The tech of Westworld

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It’s all set to be the next big TV phenomenon, and Westworld’s futuristic theme-park setting is the perfect showcase for next generation technology and the repercussions we might begin to arrive at.

From book-like tablets right through to the headline ‘hosts’ – robots that look, sound and even begin to think like humans – Westworld’s rich universe is the real star of the show, and its future-gazing technology underpins everything.

TechRadar has seen the first four episodes of Westworld, and the series has all the hallmarks of a genuinely thrilling peek into the future.

Michael Crichton’s original film – made in 1973 – was an archetypal look from the author into how humanity’s relationship with technology is complex – and that hubris and failure to understand the repercussions of our actions can lead to our undoing.

Just like in Jurassic Park, however, as we look on at the humans running before they can walk in a world they created but do not truly understand, there is huge joy in the conceit of the experience.

Westworld is a theme park where humans can act out on their Wild West fantasies – where they can choose to be the white hat good guy or a despicable villain and enact their fantasies with robots. And, on the face of it, with no repercussions.

But the robot hosts who play the roles around them and are the central technology are beginning to learn and think for themselves.

The hosts

The robot hosts are incredibly complex creations – essentially 3D printed from an unspecified material they apparently feel and look exactly like human beings, which means they can be sexbots, targets for the humans in gunfights or simply companions or antagonists on the adventures.

Westworld

Even this is far beyond our current ability in robotics – although 3D printing has come a long way and the burgeoning realism of prosthetics suggests that we are taking strides in creating more lifelike looking and feeling artificial bodies.

The 3D printing of the robots is fascinating. We see the various stages of a horse being constructed very early in our journey through Westworld and then we see proto-hosts of the human variety being put together strapped to a circle which has featured heavily throughout the show’s advertising campaign and is a call-out to Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.

It’s not a spoiler to say that as the series progresses we do get some interesting glimpses into the creation and development of these robots some 30 years before by Anthony Hopkins’ character Dr Ford. They start out as rubber-coated skeletons, pretty much exactly what you would start with if you were trying to build a human-alike robot right now.

Early host

In the pilot we also meet an older host, sharing a drink with Dr Ford and acting in a far more robotic manner than the current hosts, which are clearly hugely more sophisticated.

For those that like the original film – where the robots’ big failing was hands that looked utterly wrong – there’s a nice touch when Ford talks about the old versions giving themselves away with a simple handshake.

Hurt a fly

The Westworld hosts, when working as they are supposed to, act in narrative loops – acting out storylines by rote and never realising that they have done all this before. Uninterrupted by human contact they will continue endlessly on the same loop, but the butterfly effect of a human in the park subtly alters their behaviour.

This is obviously some way on from our current ability to fool humans into believing that they are interacting with a human. The well known Turing test of intelligence – essentially seeing if a human can be convinced they are talking to another human and not something machine coded – has been beaten, but only by cheating the system and only on a limited level. We are some way from good quality mimicry, let alone self awareness.

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