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Westworld creators want to make a show about AI without ‘going straight to Skynet’

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It’s not all bad

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy

We’re live with Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, co-creators of HBO’s Westworld, at our WIRED Business Conference.

Posted by WIRED on Wednesday, June 7, 2017

At times, Westworld is a show about the advancements and dangers of artificial intelligence, but the series’ creators never wanted it to be Skynet.

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy spoke about the message they were trying to get across with the show’s first season during a conference hosted by Wired. Nolan said that one of the tropes they wanted to avoid was turning AI into a terrifying enemy just because the rise of technology seemed scary. Nolan said that they never wanted their AI to be Skynet, the main antagonist and artificially intelligent death machines from the Terminator films.

“Until now, AI has tended to lean into a dystopian perspective,” Nolan said. “It goes straight to Skynet, with the exception of Spike Jonze's Her, which is a beautiful movie. What's becoming increasingly clear is that's not how it's going to play out.”

Nolan added that our relationship with the different forms of AI we interact with on a daily basis — from Siri, Alexa and Goole to the AI that powers driverless cars — is constantly changing, and that’s where he finds inspiration. Nolan said the issue is that as technology rapidly changes, we expect more from the artificial intelligence in our lives. We come to rely on it without ever fully trusting it.

One of the goals of Westworld was to examine these relationships between machines and humans, co-creator Joy added. After talking to those who work in Silicon Valley and specialize on how artificial intelligence functions — and grows — it became clear to both creators that Westworld was introducing an important discussion to those who weren’t focused on it five days a week.

“As technology increases exponentially and AI certainly grows we’re kind of leaping into the unfathomable with machines that can learn and process better than we can,” Joy said. “The thing that we've heard most is that it's almost good to have a prophylactic discussion; When is enough enough? What are the safeguards we need?”

Orion Pictures

One of the ways that Nolan and Joy got away from turning their show into Terminator was by examining consciousness and storytelling from the perspective of artificial intelligence, instead of just humans. Nolan said they wanted to dive into the commonalities shared by humans and AI instead of just the differences to showcase just how powerful and resonating the technology can be.

“We were attempting to look deeply at the question of consciousness and one of the things I was surprised about is that conscious is still largely a question for philosophers,” Nolan said. “It's not something the [computer science] folks [we talked to] want to get into.”

Nolan added, however, that what became apparent during their conversations with experts in the field was the main question is quickly becoming whether consciousness is a necessary function going forward.

“Consciousness is either very, very important and very hard to explore, or, as more than one computer scientist we talked to suggested, maybe it doesn't need to exist,” Nolan said. “It's not necessary.”

Nolan and Joy didn’t provide any hints as to what the second season of Westworld will focus on specifically, but Nolan said it will continue to examine the question of how stories are told and how important consciousness is to both humans and artificial intelligence.

“Throughout history we have defined consciousness as that which others do not possess,” Joy said. “That bar has shifted. It's all subjective.”

Westworld will return for a second season in 2018.