I first watched Westworld in 1973. It was a science fiction movie written by Michael Crichton and starting Yul Brynner. Yul Brynner’s character was an out-of-control android which killed visitors to a western-themed amusement park. I remember thinking before watching the movie that Yul Brynner was an odd choice of a malefactor: The last time I’d seen him was as the King of Siam in Oscar Hammerstein II’s musical The King and I; I could not imagine any actor-- no matter how talented--able to make that switch. As it turned out, he was marvelously menacing, and no one in the HBO series Westworld--not even Anthony Hopkins--was his equal.
Which is not meant to demean the HBO series. No indeed! I enjoyed it immensely and hope for a second season. The acting--if not up to Yul Brynner standards--was excellent and the special effects convincing. The series also presented the viewing public with some profound questions about the nature of robots. For one, what is the essence of sentience? Sentience according to our friends at Wiki, (please accept my apology if I am telling you something you are already aware of!) is the capacity to feel, perceive, or experience subjectively. Eighteenth-century philosophers used the concept to distinguish the ability to think (reason) from the ability to feel (sentience). For another, what respect do we owe machines made in our image?
The humanoid robots in Westworld the series were nearly exact copies of human beings. They were developed and built to act as humans in various scenarios, most of which seemed aimed at satisfying what many of our species consider manifestations of our less worthwhile instincts. I’m talking murder, rape, torture and war, to name a few.
Every day, one or more individual robots would be shot, stabbed, raped or tortured. In order to make these activities as pleasing to the individual human inflicting these...uh...indignities, the robot not only looked perfectly human but was provided with memories and a personality, not to mention flesh that bled and a voice that protested or screamed in pain. Sounds fun? I hope not!
Of course the company that supplied these robots and the people who ‘enjoyed’ these scenarios argued that what they were doing wasn’t real because the robots weren’t ‘real people.’ Which brings us to the questions of sentience and respect: Could these intelligent creations that appeared and acted human in every way be actual self-aware (sentient) beings deserving of our legal protections and respect? Watch the series and that is definitely the feeling you come away with. It is good to see these questions brought out into the open. At the present they are merely entertaining to contemplate. Someday that won’t be the case.