Westworld (Sky Atlantic, Tuesdays, 9pm) was a movie before it was a television show, and the difference between the two illustrates how far we’ve come. The plots are essentially the same. A corporation opens a Western-themed amusement park staffed by robots, a place where ordinary human beings can live out their fantasies – violent, sexual, sadistic or even humane and romantic. Something goes wrong; the robots run amok. The 1973 movie was a warning about the dangers of technology. Automation contains possibilities but also risks. Our dependence on robots was something to be feared.
By contrast, the 2016 series asks us to identify with the androids, or “hosts”, more than the humans. We now live in an age when the line between the real and the synthetic has become blurred, which poses ethical questions.
When we do eventually create androids to do our bidding, a possibility that’s closer than you think, how will we treat them? As disposable slaves? Or as sentient beings worthy of respect?
The behaviour of some of Westworld’s guests is analogous to the behaviour of Old World slave masters – violence and rape are common. But William, the show’s hero, finds that being confronted with the promise of complete freedom actually forces him to grow a new morality. He could do terrible things; he chooses to be good. The robots, meanwhile, figure out that if man is a god then he’s not the nice Judeo-Christian one, self-sacrificing and benign. Nope: we’re a lot closer to the cruel and lascivious gods of ancient Rome. When the android revolution starts, it’s tempting to cheer. In 1973, this plot twist was presented as horrifying. In 2016, it plays out as sweet justice.
I don’t want us to build androids. Partly because I fear them turning nasty, partly because I despair of man’s slide into hedonism fostered by a lack of self-reliance. But also because it’s going to ask us to be kind to a whole new species before we’ve learnt how to be nice to all the others. Given how abominable we are both to animals and humans, why put us in charge of robots, too?
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