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TV and Movies

Westworld, as reviewed by scientists, roboticists, researchers

Artificial intelligence, meet the real deal.

On the whole, the world loves TV sci-fi series Westworld.

It's about killer robots in the wild west, features warped old-timey renditions of Radiohead songs, and Christopher Nolan's brother Jonathan co-created it. What's not to love?

Westworld also explores one of the biggest topics in tech: AI. Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is an android in the Westworld theme park who enacts a handful of storylines everyday before workers hit reset and she forgets. Until one day she doesn't. What ensues is a sometimes Blade Runner philosophical, Django Unchained blood fest.

Unlike the rest of the world, though, scientists, roboticists and researchers have a degree-backed understanding of the tech served up in the show. So, assuming important people have time to watch TV, I asked them what they thought of Westworld.

"Compelling story, completely ungrounded tech."

-- Michael L. Littman, professor of computer science, Brown University (episode 1, season 1)


"Fascinating story line that suggests serious ethical dilemmas and consequences with a futuristic, fictional technology."  

-- Alan R. Wagner, assistant professor of aerospace engineering and research associate at Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State University (season 1)


"It's not science, just fiction, but like all great works of art, Westworld makes us challenge our deeply held beliefs and human values."

-- Guy Hoffman, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University (all season 1, four episodes season 2)


"I tried watching the first episode ages ago and found it just too confusing!"

-- Toby Walsh, professor of artificial intelligence at University of New South Wales (episode 1, season 1)


"Fun, but a huge disconnect between the hardware/software portrayed and what will actually be possible in the foreseeable future."

-- Professor Geoff Goodhill, Queensland Brain Institute, University of Queensland (all season 1)


"From a sci-fi perspective it's a very interesting show, but I kept wondering whether robo-Disneyland was the best use of that revolutionary technology."

-- Kris Hauser, associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Duke University (three episodes season 1)


"I have only seen one episode and thought it was a pretty neat concept for a show and something that could one day happen technologically."

-- David Cappelleri, assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering, Purdue University (one episode, season 1)

"The series is a lot of fun. Very interesting approach to cognition and consciousness and how that might come about in something we make. Provokes us to ask questions about how much we really know about awareness, reasoning, deduction... where all that comes from. People in AI and similar fields would know more than me.

"From a technical point of view I'm only qualified to speculate about the materials they use to make the robot. It's pretty far out there. The robots imitate life to the point where humans can't tell the difference, implying something made out of composite and/or grown biological material makes up their bodies. Nothing I work with focuses on this kind of technology, but it's fun to think about."

-- Elias Garratt, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Michigan State University (all season 1, one episode season 2)


"We are about to have robots in our day to day life, but to have organic robots will take time. We need perhaps hundreds of years to understand a single cell, and thousands of years to understand our brain. The show is unrealistic."

-- Victor S. Adamchik, professor of engineering practice at University of Southern California (two episodes season 1, four season 2)


"My enjoyment comes less from thinking about the technology and more from the amazing storytelling and the philosophical questions. However, thinking about how ongoing research could contribute to the robots in Westworld often makes seminars more fun! For instance, last semester we had a departmental seminar speaker discuss her research into bio-inspired robots, which I think would be crucial to building the robots of Westworld.

Jennifer Bisset/CNET/HBO

"Of course, right now these bio-robots have super limited motions, but people are building the foundations. As a control engineer, I like to imagine that my own research into robust control might someday enable the development of robots that can function in incredibly diverse conditions, like the ones in Westworld."

-- Leila Bridgeman, assistant professor of mechanical engineering & materials science at Duke University (all season 1)


"As a fan of the original movie, I like the direction that the small screen version has taken. The concept of robots, artificial intelligence and complex human-computer interactions is fascinating, but also entertaining."

-- Professor Michael Blumenstein, associate dean at University of Technology Sydney (one episode season 1)

westworld-ford-faces.jpg

Anthony Hopkins plays Robert Ford, the co-founder and Park Director of Westworld.

HBO

"I liked what I saw in the first episodes of Westworld. I binge watched them on a long flight. Now I'm hooked and want to watch more. Much like the real Las Vegas in Nevada, Westworld is a taboo-free zone far from prying eyes where people go to indulge their wildest fantasies, guilt-free with no repercussions.

"This is definitely one use that advanced robotics will be put to and hyper-realistic androids like these are feasible and probably not too far off. In a decade or two, we're going to see real-life Westworld clones. They might be themed differently, but you'll be able to do most of what happens in Westworld."

-- David Tuffley, lecturer in socio-technical studies at Griffith University (four episodes season 1)


"Cleverly updated, totally gripping, full of interesting ethical and technological questions, and extremely effective at communicating the human disregard for the robots. We are far from this world but on route to it. I would have preferred it to be less violent but that was the only downside for me."

-- Maria Garcia de la Banda, professor of computer science at Monash University (all season 1)


"Westworld Season 1 is fantastic... this is captivating TV. It's not flawless but more than makes up for that with its portrayal of the core themes and concepts. What I especially like about it as a technologist is that it does not overly focus on the technology itself, but rather on it as a vehicle or mechanism to introduce and provoke some of the themes explored in the show -- can't wait to watch season 2, fingers crossed it's as good as season 1."

-- Professor Michael Milford, robotics and autonomous systems, Queensland University of Technology (all season 1)


Jennifer Bisset/CNET/HBO

"One of the few shows that depicts game development and interactive narrative in an interesting and non-trivial way. Indeed, lots of the inspiration for the show come from open-world games such Skyrim and Red Dead Redemption. Also, very interesting philosophical questions raised about AI & Robotics, without trying to provide trivial "sensationalist" technical answers. As an AI researcher, I applauded that."

-- Fabio Zambetta, associate professor of computer science and software engineering at RMIT (all season 1)


"An engaging drama that at it best explores human greed and depravity, set in a fantasy world inhabited by robots that cannot be distinguished from humans."

-- Geoff Webb, director of Monash University Centre for Data Science (all season 1)


"I have watched all the episodes and love the show. As an AI researcher it highlights some of the technology that we would like to develop but reminds us even more how difficult the problem is. I assure you we are far far away from replicating what is depicted in the show."

-- Professor John Thangarajah, associate dean of computer science and software engineering at RMIT (all episodes)

"Love the series, loved the original movie! The 1973 movie reflected fears about automation and computers taking over jobs which was happening in Detroit at that time, but the moral of the story was that machine intelligence is a parlor trick and even a nebbishy lawyer can outwit the super killer robot that is on auto-pilot.

"The HBO series reflects fears about autonomy, but it is more about discrimination, ultra-violence in video games, and sexual inequality. The moral of the series is that when human-level machine intelligence arrives, society will conveniently ignore that as long as possible, just like slavery in the 1800s, forcing mild mannered hosts to turn into super killer robots."

-- Robin Murphy, professor at Texas A&M (all season 1, 2)


"Incredibly violent and not as clever as many other movies and programs that explore technical capabilities of robots and human-robot interactions that raise important ethical concerns about AI and robots. The Humans series is so much more intriguing and inspiring."

-- Mary-Anne Williams, director of the The Magic Lab at University of Technology Sydney (all season 1, 2)


"I think it's one of the best shows on AI."

-- Aldeida Aleti, senior lecturer in software engineering at Monash University (all season 1)

Now playing: Watch this: Westworld star James Marsden talks Season 2, AI and the...
4:11

First published May 27, 5 a.m. PT.

Update, May 30 at 2:22 p.m.: Adds episode 6 Westworld talk show.

Update, May 30 at 6:16 p.m.: Adds another review.

Update, July 19 at 5:40 p.m.: Adds another review.

Westworld season 2 airs Sunday nights on HBO. Check your local listings for timing and channels.