Westworld (1973): Before the series, there was the surprisingly realistic movie

February 21, 2016

 

Robots: Androids, robot horses and rattlesnakes.

 

What it gets right about robotics: perception and the use of affordances, the manpower it takes to keep complex robots in operation, computer viruses

 

Recommended watching: Stop what you are doing and watch this movie now! This is a quintessential robot movie and it is fun to count the number of science fiction movies that reuse the themes and scenes from Westworld. While not a kiddie family movie, it’s a mild PG and nothing to cause nightmares.

 

 

Before there was Arnold as the unstoppable Terminator with the accent, before there was Jurassic Park or Josh Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods with hidden technicians running an elaborate fantasy world, there was Westworld. Westworld, with Yul Brenner as a robot doppelgänger of his iconic 1960 Magnificent Seven gunslinger with the Cajun accent. Only instead of being programmed to fight for good, the man in black is doomed to be shot up each week by rich lawyers pretending to be cowboys in a micro-managed, technology-enabled theme park.

 

Until things go wrong.

 

How wrong? Delightfully and suspensefully very wrong.

 

Westworld was written and directed by Michael Crichton nearly 20 years before Jurassic Park but it has a similar setting.  The movie takes place in a near future where rich adult vacationers can go to Delios for an immersive vacation in one of three parks: Roman World, Medieval World, or Western World. The parks are staffed with autonomous humanoid (and animal) robots with human technicians working behind the scenes to handle any role playing surprises, ensure safety, clean up, and conduct maintenance on the robots.

 

For the price of admission, vacationers can role-play without limits. If you are role-playing a nobleman and want to feel up the serving wench robot a la Dominique Strauss-Kahn, go for it, there will be no lawsuits.  If you want to rob a bank and shoot up the town, just do it! A crew will come in after midnight to clean up the mess.

 

Crichton, in his first outing as a director, slyly introduces a subtext of robot ethics to increase the sense of unease. There’s a hint of privilege, power, and oppression in the way humans take for granted that they will win all the fights and the way the sex robots rotely succumb to the marginal charms of humans whose main value appears to be having enough money to afford Delios. From the moment Yul Brenner’s Gunslinger appears on screen, it is so clear that he would win the fight-- every fight, every time-- if he were not limited by his supervisory programming. It is a wonder that his thwarted mechanical hauteur and malevolent competence does not shrivel like a raisin in the sun, if not burst into flames.  Does he pursue Richard Benjamin’s  I-am-so-not-a-cowboy character with the unfeeling mechanical intensity later duplicated by the Terminator, or is there the slight hint of “this is personal” from losing so many rigged gunfights?

 

The lesser character robots serve as dusty mirrors to society. Is the mechanical saloon girl programmed to be resigned and blank? Maybe. Is her listlessness an explicit reflection of prostitution or is she intelligent enough to truly interpret human desires and thus see the human lack of respect?  We, as the audience, can’t tell but the vacationers don’t care. All that research in AI about having shared mental models and a common ground with robots may not matter: is the future one where the robots have to understand us but we don’t have to understand them?

 

But to Crichton’s credit and the whiff of realism in the movie, the plot does not revert back to R.U.R.’s moral superiority as the mechanism for a possibly deserved uprising. Instead the source of the robot uprising is more banal and thus more frightening: a computer virus undermines various programs through the Delios complex, especially that supervisory program that imposes limits on the robots. Perhaps it was Crichton’s training as a doctor that made him appreciate the surprises of biological viruses and translate “ooops, didn’t see that coming” epidemiology to the world of silicon.  While the term computer bug had been introduced earlier by Grace Murray Hopper into the computer science lexicon in 1947, the idea of a bug spreading literally like a virus had not been formalized. No matter its conceptual origins, the computer virus in Westworld leads to the unthinkable happening and, just like 17 years later in Jurassic Park, the cost of hubris and the failure to consider how technology can fail is hell to pay.

 

While one would hope that Crichton is wrong about human shallowness, he did get much of the robotics right- especially about the high manpower cost. The robots are complex and constantly monitored by the hidden technicians who can step in for manual control, just like the DARPA Robotics Challenge. This is sometimes called human out of the loop control. The androids illustrate the fallacy of what the cognitive engineer David Woods calls the substitution myth: Robots aren’t going to replace humans with a zero sum gain- there’s additional costs to the system. In Worldworld, there’s a lot of technicians working hard to keep up the illusion that the androids are human.

 

Crichton also got the engineering right. The robots are carefully repaired by other, highly skilled humans with diagnostics constantly running in the background, much like an emergency room. The robot construction is modular and only damaged subsystems are replaced.  The only false note is that a robot allows herself to be forced to drink water and thus short-circuit, surely the programmers would have created an emergency shut down procedure to just close her mouth.

 

The movie holds up well both as a movie and technically. The movie has very few special effects so there’s not much to age and one of the main characters is played by a young James Brolin,  making it easy to think that this is a modern indie movie with his near identical son, Josh Brolin. The most technically correct aspect of the movie is the limited perception of the Gunslinger. His perception is essentially the illustrated version of Daniel H. Wilson’s wonderful 2005 book How to Survive a Robot Uprising. The Gunslinger is using heat as its primary sensing for relentlessly tracking Richard Benjamin. In this case, heat is the affordance of a person, following Gibson’s ecological theory of perception and the behavioral programming style in artificial intelligence. The problem is that heat isn’t restricted to humans, torches and fires can be hot and thus confused for a person. That possibility of confusion gives Benjamin’s character a slim chance for survival.  There is some indication that the Gunslinger is also using sound as well to track to increasingly desperate Benjamin, though the beating sound in the pre-disco soundtrack does not correspond to the human’s footsteps or presumed heartbeat so what that sound would be is anyone’s guess.

 

And yet, the movie falls short in its imagination of robots and what is hard. The hovercraft that brings the vacationers to Delios is manually piloted and docked, when a computer could have probably done better. The robots had precise and perfect facial mannerisms but did not have fully functional hand as if manipulation were harder than realistic facial control (it is a tie) and not important (it would essential for the robots to pick up objects, touch people, etc. in order to play their roles).  But these are minor kvetches as Richard Benjamin’s Jewish lawyer might agree.

 

At the end of Magnificent Seven, Yul Brenner’s character muses that, despite the fame and glory of being gunslingers, he and his partners will never have the comforts of a normal life that they have saved for the villagers.  He says “The old man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost.” In Westworld, if the Gunslinger had survived, he might have said “Crichton was right. Only the humans won. The robots always lose in the end.”

 

Or at least they always lose in the movies.  You may want to get a copy of How to Survive A Robot Uprising to be on the safe side.

 

 

 

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