Westworld Season Two: AI ethics and the potential risks of tech advancement
As “Westworld” season two continues to unfold, millions of viewers have been captivated by the provocative tale of a Wild West-themed amusement park populated by humanoid robots, or “hosts.”
Drawing visual themes from science fiction and old westerns, the critically acclaimed first season of “Westworld” followed the story lines of wealthy human visitors to the park capable of exploring their wildest fantasies without consequence. While the AI hosts populating the theme park appeared remarkably human, they weren’t — a fact known by guests, who often brutalized them without a second thought.
In the first season, Westworld wiped the memories of slain AI. This policy worked until hosts started remembering their previous lives, which led to revolt. Westworld season two begins after the hosts have staged an uprising.
Though the show has been described as a “parable and flight of fancy” by creator Jonathan Nolan in a WBUR interview, there’s clear allegory about the potential risks of mismanaged AI ethics.
Westworld Season Two: Why we can’t look away
“Westworld” has united both technologists and entertainment fans with its dark gritty tale of artificial intelligence, ethics and technology advancement gone off the rails. Frontier reports it has officially surpassed “Game of Thrones” as the most-searched television show.
“We’re looking at artificial intelligence and asking the question, ‘Will we build it responsibly?'” stated Nolan to WBUR. “If things play out with AI the way that they have done with Facebook, we’re in a lot of trouble.”
Perhaps us not being able to look away from “Westworld” has to do with more than just a talented cast and high production value. The show is grappling with themes of tech ethics when consumer worries about data privacy and other big questions around integrity are at all-time highs.
Sailthru surveys have found 60 percent of adults believe the government should regulate data privacy laws in industry, while according to a 2018 Brookings survey, just 14 percent of adults have a very positive sentiment about AI and the potential impact on data privacy.
AI and unethical data collection practices
The second episode of this season, “Reunion,” revealed a paradigm-shifting plot point: The theme park wasn’t created with the purpose of entertaining wealthy visitors. The park’s true objective was to serve as a large-scale data collection tool. The park and its hosts existed to document multimedia and DNA evidence of theme park visitors performing heinous acts against the human-like artificial intelligence.
There are obvious, and immediate, lessons which apply to contemporary applications of AI in industry. AI disclosure and transparency around data collection is critical, especially as the enterprise adopts applications of augmented intelligence which perform in increasingly human-like ways.
Researchers have discovered that humans can develop trust in AI, which can lead to humans revealing sensitive data. Stanford researchers recently published research on an AI developed for end-of-life care planning, including findings that patients may be more comfortable discussing sensitive topics with AI than with a fellow human — including a physician.
As organizations increasingly use AI for data collection and customer service, the lesson here is clear: Avoiding breach of trust and ethical misconduct is key.
“Westworld” discusses the limitations of technology
One of the most poignant moments in “Westworld” season two took place between an older, grizzled man-in-black William and suffering android James Delos. Lamenting the limitation of human mortality, he tells Delos, his father-in-law, “People aren’t meant to live forever.” Once a wealthy human, Delos was stuck in an endless loop of dying and being re-uploaded to a robot clone of himself following an ill-fated attempt to achieve immortality.
“Westworld” is, by nearly all accounts, exceptionally well-written and produced entertainment. However, it’s also an important consider the limitations of technology and the risks of unmitigated tech advancement.
While immortality isn’t within the realm of immediate innovation, other lessons within the show have more tangible implications, including storylines of rogue code due to poor oversight and low-quality inputs. As enjoyable as “Westworld” can be to watch for its sheer storytelling value, it’s worth paying attention to its underlying themes and lessons, too.