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The Intellectual Maze of Westworld
One of the most popular TV shows on HBO is Westworld. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have created a critically acclaimed show (based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 film) in which they explore some of the most difficult and important questions that humanity has wrestled with for centuries: What is reality? What is consciousness? Do we have free will? Who are we?
The creative team poses these questions to their audience in a genre-blending show: Western meets science fiction meets thriller. The show is set in an amusement park fashioned like the Wild West and is designed for the pleasure of very rich tourists (the guests) who can do whatever they want to the AI residents of the park (the hosts) without consequences. The guests often rape or kill the hosts, whose memories are erased at the end of each day and are brought back to life time after time to re-live the same nightmares. Season 1 of Westworld, on which this course focuses, depicts some hosts as beginning to remember events from their past, gaining consciousness, and rebelling against “the gods” that have created them (much like Dr. Frankenstein’s creature rebels against his creator in what is commonly regarded as the first work of science fiction). All along, the audience is left wondering who is really in charge of the new narratives the hosts with consciousness are attempting to write for themselves.
Set sometime in the near future, Westworld connects our past (the Wild West; the Western film genre), our present (the ongoing stereotypical representation of women in media; how do our brains work?), and our future (capabilities of AI; should AI have rights?—David J. Gunkel’s book Robot Rights was published by the MIT Press in October 2018.). This course will examine the complex and provocative questions Westworld raises through the lens of literature, cinema, neuroscience and robotics, cultural and social studies, and philosophy.