One of the core elements that defines Westworld is the idea of self-consciousness, and what it truly means to be human. Over the first season, we watched as hosts took on The Maze, circling closer and closer to the achievement of self-consciousness, and many times ultimately going insane as a result.
This season, as hosts like Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Maeve (Thandie Newton) have not only achieved android self-consciousness, but have helped to usher in the higher mental state for their robot followers, we’ve watched as hosts have taken advantage of their free will, for better or for worse, in order to achieve their missions. And this higher level of existence that the hosts have achieved has brought with it a brand new set of questions and discussions about the degree to which the hosts are truly sentient like their human counterparts – and, if we’re being honest, whether or not achieving the same mental capacity as us imperfect humans is really the best thing for them.
There’s no doubt the show will continue to ask these questions through the rest of this season and into next, and that’s where David Eagleman comes in. The neuroscientist and Stanford adjunct professor, who also boasts the envious title of Science Advisor to Westworld, recently chatted with Discover about the idea of robot self-consciousness on the show, and how his expertise has helped the writers paint a realistic picture of AI.
Eagleman explains that his contributions to this season started with an all-day conversation with the show’s writers and producers:
“What I did is I went down to LA last season and had like an eight hour session with them, the writers room and the producers, talking about all the issues at the heart of the show. Like what would it mean to build consciousness from pieces and parts, can a robot become sentient, what is free will, do we have it, would robots have it, these sorts of questions. And you know, these are the questions that sit right at the heart of what’s happening in neuroscience. And most of them, by the way, have no clear answer. So the reason it took eight hours is we were debating all the intricacies of the questions.”
Speaking to the idea of building self-consciousness into robots, Eagleman says that, in theory, this technological breakthrough is possible, if scientists and researchers use the human brain as a roadmap. “We know we are made of pieces and parts: almost 100 billion neurons, each one of which has about 10,000 connections,” says Eagleman. “So we’re made of enormously sophisticated stuff. And yet we know we have consciousness, so it seems it should be possible to build consciousness in a machine.”
Another idea that’s been introduced into the show is the thought of uploading a human’s mind into a digital consciousness in order for that person to “live” forever within a host body. Eagleman explains that, while we currently don’t have any idea whether or not it’s possible, it could theoretically work. “Given that the brain is made of pieces and parts, it should be downloadable,” says Eagleman. “We should be able to reconstruct it on any medium you want, whether it’s beer cans and tennis balls or silicon chips. It should be that once we understand the algorithms taking place, we should be able to reproduce that. And if somehow that algorithm equates to consciousness, it should be consciousness.”
Check out Eagleman’s full interview here.
Even for someone who doesn’t have a lick of acting abilities, I can confidently say that it can’t be easy acting like a robot. It’s inhuman to do so, literally. And to do so on set, take after take, for a show that you know is going to be viewed by millions of people…it definitely takes a very special, and talented, person to pull that off.
Luckily, Westworld has assembled a cast of incredible actors, who not only know how to act like a robot, but are really, really good at infusing elements into their characters that make them kinda feel like real humans.
Speaking with Backstage, co-creators and showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy opened up about what it takes to play a host on Westworld, and how the show’s actors have gone above and beyond in their character portrayals.
One of the actors who seems to have perfected the subtle robotic movements and facial gestures is Louis Herthum (Peter Abernathy). Joy says that the actor really nailed what they were looking for during his audition. “The thing that he understood intuitively and beautifully was that it wasn’t even those personas that were the most critical performance. It was the moments between them, where the computer in him would break down and then reconfigure,” admits Joy. “It’s an important nuance because you feel the machine and you feel this unfathomable extra soul in those seemingly blank places.”
A unique feature about the hosts in the show is that they all have backstories, either through programmed cornerstones or actual memories, through which they can draw their emotions and intentions. It’s easy enough to use exposition as a means of establishing a host’s backstory, but it’s another thing to watch as their memories influence their present feelings and actions. Joy says that watching the actors draw upon their layered pasts is what makes their characters feel like they could be more human than the humans:
“All of the characters are diving deep into stories of strength, stories of powerlessness, stories of abuse, stories of love. And in each of these elements, they are something even more than human. They are the essence of these emotions. It’s incredible to me that even when [the cast is] playing these hosts, these seemingly artificial creatures, sometimes when I watch them work, I’ve never seen a character feel so alive.”
Check out Nolan and Joy’s entire interview here, and let us know what you think!