If you've been watching Westworld, at some point you've probably found yourself wondering how close we are in reality to the science fiction of an immersive theme park populated by robots near indistinguishable from humans, whose bodies are there to cater to guests' every perverse pleasure. Over the course of its first few episodes, the future presented by the show manages to simultaneously feel impossibly far away, yet only just out of reach.
So what's the reality when it comes to our ability to develop ultra-lifelike robots that can carry on a conversation, down a shot of whiskey, bleed when shot or stabbed, and, of course, fuck?
(Warning: Spoilers below!)
What makes a host robot
First things first: What are those Westworld caliber machines, anyway? Though the show's been somewhat vague about how the park builds its hosts (aside from that weird rotating wheel in a vat of white paint), we do know a few things about these bots.
For starters, they're all powered by highly advanced AIs that enable them not just to run through a preprogrammed script, but to interact with guests—assessing the situation and reacting to new information, adapting their storylines and responses as needed on the fly.
The hosts seem to have some sort of skeletal underpinning, yet one that's flexible enough to allow for smooth, humanlike movements and facial expressions. We're already seeing many robots being made that can mimic both human bipedal walking and facial expressions, so making this part work should actually be one of the easier aspects (relatively).
We also know that Westworld hosts don't just look like humans; they're actually made of organic material. Though it's still unclear what makes up a Westworld host's innards, we do know they're capable of getting bacterial infections (episode two notes Maeve has a MRSA infection). Since they bleed when cut (and engage in a number of other human activities), it's reasonable to assume there are at least a few humanlike systems going on under the skin.
To learn more about the process of artificially creating organic systems, I reached out to Amy Karle, a bio-artist whose work explores the boundaries between technology and humanity. Her recent work includes Regenerative Reliquary, a bio-printed scaffold seeded with stem cells that, over time, will theoretically grow into a human hand—exactly the kind of tech that might one day give us robots with Dolores's flawless complexion.
Robot skin and guts
Karle opened our conversation with some good news. It turns out that skin itself is easy to grow, something that Karle—who was born missing the skin on the top of her head, and has received a number of skin grafts over the course of her life—is intimately familiar with.
For robots, you wouldn't need actual skin. You'd be able to get away with a skin-like substance, perhaps some blend of collagen and synthetic fibers, that mimics the warmth and texture and general experience of human skin. In addition to feeling like human skin, it'd also have the ability to feel like human skin (i.e. respond to pressure and touch, as with this recent development in artificial skin tech). Even better, that pseudoskin could improve on nature with added durability or improved healing capabilities—a must given how quickly Westworld hosts return to action after being shot, stabbed, and otherwise mutilated.
But there's a catch. While growing skin is a straightforward prospect, keeping it alive is a much more complex endeavor. You can't just slap skin cells on a metal skeleton and call it a day. There's an entire network of complex systems involved in feeding those cells the nutrients they need to stay alive—complex systems that also underpin some of the other essential aspects of the Westworld host experience, like eating and drinking and bleeding when injured.
While some of those complex systems are probably optional—do robots really need working digestive systems, or gallbladders?—others are non-negotiable. It's been made abundantly clear that Westworld's hosts are "fully functional," and since supplying maidens of the Old West with bottles of Astroglide would feel a bit anachronistic, that means they've got to be equipped with self-lubricating vaginas.
As products like the RealTouch have shown, seamlessly mimicking the vaginal environment is not a simple prospect. It's possible that deep within each female Westworld host is a lube reservoir that's routinely refilled by park techs, but it'd be more in keeping with what we've seen if the robo sex workers of Westworld are equipped with a relatively accurate recreation of a human vagina, one that mimics the lubrication process of human genitals (and, for that matter, mouths and eyes).
The hard numbers
So, given all that complexity, what's a reasonable estimate for when we might see artificially animated organic exteriors? Karle estimates that it'll be at least one hundred years before we're anywhere close to creating a lifelike human analog from scratch, though less realistic models—like these sex robots scheduled for release next year—could be quite a bit sooner.
Why is Karle so pessimistic? The scaffolding plus stem cell setup used in Regenerative Reliquary has already given us artificial vaginas, esophaguses, and ears; but integrating an artificial organ into an existing system is a much simpler prospect than creating that system anew. An artificial organism with internal organs working in concert to create a convincing mimicry of human life is leagues beyond where we are now.
And that's just the external elements of Westworld hosts. As complicated as building a simulacrum of the human body is, building one of the human mind is even worse.
Yes, computer science is advanced enough to give us AI assistants like Siri and Alexa and Twitter bots that troll Trump supporters. But as I learned from Kate Compton, a PhD candidate in computer science and member of Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz whose Tracery platform allows non-programmers to easily create their own creative AI bots, those projects are far simpler than what we see on Westworld. And there's a good chance that AI of that complexity will remain out of reach for the foreseeable future.
One of the biggest challenges to achieving Westworld-level AI? A tricky little thing Compton refers to as the "strong AI" problem. Many of the social interactions we see as simple—greeting someone at the grocery store, for instance—are actually devilishly complex, requiring an understanding of human relationships and social mores that entails mastery of a vast library of nuanced social cues.
It would be one thing if the park's guests were merely inserting themselves into a preset narrative, allowing hosts to spit back predetermined dialogue and storylines without straying too far from a handful of choices. But that's not the world the show depicts: Whatever narrative the hosts may initially set out on, there's always the chance of getting derailed by a horny guest or an unexpected murder, a possibility that requires hosts to be endlessly adaptable.
Successful AI works because it's allowed to exist within a constrained environment, and has a number of "theatrical tricks" that distract users from the platform's failings and redirect them to its strengths. Compton explains that presently, the best AI is not unlike Disneyland, where plywood sets pass as majestic castles because the park is successfully "directing you to just look at the beautiful fantasy… and never walk around the back to see all the bits that aren't constructed."
She cites the Eliza chatbot—an early text-based program intended to mimic the experience of being in a therapist's office, which I may have "played" as a "game" during my totally normal 80s childhood—as an excellent example of this philosophy. Because Eliza is a therapist, its responses are already constrained. It doesn't have to respond with complex, unique thoughts or brilliant insights. It can get away with asking questions and turning the conversation back to the user. According to Compton, Eliza works because its creators "constructed a little world where everything is flattering to the AI."
But while those parlor tricks might work for a chatbot therapist, they're not quite sufficient to convincingly create an ingenue farmer's daughter, or world weary sex worker, or any of the numerous other characters that populate Westworld. Maybe that's for the best.
Would we even want to make a real Westworld?
"We've got a lot of humans in the world, and we don't particularly like them," Compton said. Why would we want to create a technology that just gives us a whole bunch more humans?
Westworld itself seems aware of that possibility. In an early episode, a technician notes that making the robots too real could backfire. Robo-infidelity might be all in good fun, but make the experience indistinguishable from actual cheating, and patrons' partners might not be too pleased. Murder, too, could feel a lot less fun if it actually seems real; the knowledge that your victim will ultimately be resurrected might not be enough to negate the revulsion of destroying a human-seeming life (something Westworld also demonstrates some awareness of).
Though it's not likely that these are moral quandaries most of us are likely to find ourselves in, no matter how good AI and biotech get within our lifetimes. Even within the fantastical universe of Westworld, it's clear that access to super lifelike robots is a privilege reserved for the richest of the rich. Which, honestly, is probably the most accurate aspect of the show's vision of the future.
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