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8 technologies in Westworld and when we’ll see them

What Guests don't see behind the scenes at Westworld.


It seems like every television season plays host to a single show that takes over our cultural consciousness by coating modern fears in fantastical drama.

Game of Thrones taps into the cutthroat nature of modern politics, while The Walking Dead plays into our ever-present fear of a worldwide contagion. This year, with Elon Musk’s dire warnings about the dangers of artificial intelligence, Siri and Alexa permeating our personal lives, and self-driving cars threatening to run down groups of children, Westworld is posed to be that show.

Westworld is complex. It’s that complexity, interwoven with mysteries and plot twists, that produces the hours of online speculation and wild fan theories that are the hallmark of anything worth watching.

Yet, because Westworld‘s brand of complexity is intrinsically rooted in technology, some of the more technically inclined fans have a sizable leg up on other fans when it comes to understanding this futuristic fairy tale. So we’re going to break it down for the non-techie cohort. What are the inventions of the show, how do they work, and how close are we to achieving them today?

The premise of Westworld is deceptively simple: a Wild West theme park allows Guests to take on roles and engage in storylines with Hosts, or androids (a word for a robot that seems human). The Hosts can improvise based on what the Guests do, and over the course of the show they begin to achieve self-awareness. It may seem impossible that such a thing could happen in 2016. And while that’s true, some of these innovations are closer than you might think.

1. 3D printing

In the gorgeous opening credits of the show, with musical stylings provided by none other than Games of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi, we see the process of one of the android bodies being created. A three-dimensional humanoid shape emerges from a strange white bath. We see the iris of an eye being carefully, laboriously printed one strand at a time by a robotic arm not unlike the ones you find toiling away inside a modern automotive assembly line; bones, muscles and tendons are slowly layered into being. We all know that 3D printing is possible, but could we actually create a human body this way?

The inspiration for the 3D printing technique used in Westworld comes from a well-established technology called stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing. According to Wikipedia, SLA is an additive manufacturing process that works by focusing an ultraviolet (UV) laser onto a vat of photopolymer resin (the white liquid seen dripping from the androids during assembly). For this to work in the way the show wants it to, both the speed and accuracy of the method would have to increase dramatically. Without the addition of nanotechnology (the ability to assemble structures atom by atom), it’s doubtful we could create complex enough structures to mimic the human body.  Furthermore, rather than a single ubiquitous material, one assumes that an electrically conductive substance would need to be embedded (the “nerves”) in order to actually signal the synthetic muscles (don’t worry, they’re working on that).

There are also people printing 3D organs, but there’s no indication (yet) that the Hosts actually have organs. They have blood (as evidenced by all of the times they’ve been shot, plus that horrifying head smashing), but chances are they’re made of a flesh substitute. A more realistic powersource would be a small, ultra energy dense battery, similar to what a company called Ampirus is working on now.

Our Take: Plausible, mid-far future

2. Robots that seem human

The Hosts move so humanly that the opening scenes of the show rely on tricking the audience into believing that Teddy is one of the human Guests; the reveal partway through the episode that he is in fact one of the androids resounds especially with fans of the original movie.

This is one of the areas from which we are currently the most removed. While we can create androids that look incredibly real, they are given away instantly by their movements. Judging by the latest robotic competitions and what has come out of Boston Dynamics, the machinery needed to actually walk is still very far from what we seen on the show. However, the current bottleneck is computational power, which grows exponentially each year.

Our Take: Plausible, mid future

3. Intelligent machines

As a slight departure from the original work, show creator Jonathan Nolan draws our attention to the nuances of human-AI interaction rather than mechanical malfunctions. If you’ve talked to any chatbots on Facebook Messenger lately, or had a conversation with Tay on Twitter, you know that we’re still a ways off from any kind of true general intelligence. But the thing about the androids of Westworld is that, at least at the beginning, they’re not truly intelligent — they’re just programmed so thoroughly that upon a first meeting, the average person can’t tell the difference.

However, Hosts are still far more advanced than a simple scripted chat interface — they’re capable of improvisation, and the way they’re left to “practice” with each other suggests a form of machine learning. In fact, the need to “reset” the Hosts, erasing past memories, implies they learn very well, and could otherwise escape their pre-programmed narrative loops. The Shakespearean phrase we see in Episode 2 seems to be a trigger that gives the Hosts the ability to access their prior databanks, which are seemingly “erased,” but actually still present. This is also how a hard drive on your computer works — when you delete data it isn’t actually removed, it’s simply treated as empty space to the operating system, and only erased if new data overwrites it.

By current standards, we are still a long way from a true general AI, but we can break down the Hosts’ abilities into a set of practical (and potentially solvable) problems. We know from the show the Hosts respond to voice activation commands as well as physical interfaces, such as tablets and computers. So at minimum we need: advanced speech, object, and facial recognition and comprehension; a semblance of world knowledge; and an improvisation and reasoning engine tying it together.

You may be surprised to know that we have already achieved better-than-human speech recognition. Interestingly, because humans only achieve 80 to 85 percent accuracy, improving this technology would actually make them seem less real!

Our Take: Already here

4. Image recognition

Anyone with an internet connection will know that Google, Facebook, and Apple have made huge advancements in image recognition — just look at Google Photos’ ability to automatically group your photos by person, even as they age. Hosts need to detect objects as well, and interestingly advancements in this area might come from self-driving cars. It turns out that Tesla’s AI is able to leverage the fact that the car is moving by looking at the way the object changes given that movement being mobile; the Hosts will have the same advantage.

Our Take: Definite, nearly here

5. Infinite knowledge

World knowledge is required in order to have real comprehension. It isn’t enough to be able to say: This is a picture of an apple, and this is a picture of an orange. You need to know that we eat oranges for breakfast, that apples are symbolic of original sin, and that no one puts either into a garden salad.

Researchers at IBM have made this kind of knowledge their mission, and IBM Watson is the result of years of research on the subject. You’re probably familiar with Watson from when it won a game of Jeopardy against human players. Currently that database of knowledge needs to be programmed, but with enough time, we’ll start to see androids that can access and understand a nearly infinite pool of knowledge.

Our Take: Definite, nearly here

6. Improvisation

There is a wide rift between accessing programmed responses and being able to improvise. Programmed responses are simple — we can create an android today that could put on a play with another android, using pre-programmed scripts. What is much harder is giving them the ability to improvise.

Current chatbots give the illusion of improvising by selecting answers based on a list of things you might say, a “choose your own adventure”-style story. However, we have given computers the ability to improvise, to a certain degree. When AlphaGo (Google’s deep learning experiment) beat a human master of the game Go, it would have been impossible to program it with every possible move (there are more potential moves in Go than stars in the universe). Instead, researchers used a deep neural net approach to let AlphaGo teach itself how to play, by studying hundreds of thousands of other games.

The downside to this approach is that researchers have no knowledge or control of how the machine is making those improvisational leaps. Sounds kind of like Westworld, doesn’t it?

So if we’ve achieved speech parity, and image recognition is on point, and neural nets allow us to teach machines to improvise … why don’t androids exist today?

The hangup is that the computing power (and data) needed to create such a network is immense. We have to assume that in Westworld‘s future, they’ve had a massive breakthrough, perhaps via quantum computing or a massive worldwide collaborative computing effort (similar to Worldwide LHC Computing Grid, which is expected to compute 50 petabytes of data). So our take on this one assumes that sometime, computing power is no longer the bottleneck it is today.

Our Take: Plausible, near-mid future

7. Computers

While the show focus on the androids and adventures of the Westworld theme park, the world extends far beyond those borders, and technology has continued to advance in all areas of life. Here are some minor technologies we glimpse throughout the show.

In a world based in technology, one of the first questions we have to ask is: What do computers look like? In a short time computers have evolved from giant machines that span entire rooms to tiny supercomputers we carry around in our pockets (smartphones).

In Westworld, we see computers both large and small, indicating that they’re still constrained by size the way we are today — we can make incredibly minute computers, but the larger they are, the better their computing power. So, big computer banks span Westworld’s Control Room, while smaller tablets are used to interface with the androids during maintenance sessions.

The coolest part of the tablets is that they fold up to be placed in your pocket. Technology like that might seem farfetched, but in actual fact, Lenovo has just announced a foldable phone that will double as a tablet. Its scheduled release date? 2017.

Our Take: Already here, essentially

8. Terraforming

The park takes up a massive amount of real-world land, and part of providing countless new entertainments for Guests is constant change. That means not only new Hosts and new storylines to participate in, but entirely new lands to explore.

In the fourth episode we see an Ultra-Digger churning up the land, breaking down a restaurant that’s been there for forty years to make way for a new storyline and landscape. Fortunately or unfortunately, this technology is very real, and is in use today in coal mines around the world.

Our Take: Already here

The mystery continues

Westworld toys with a recurring theme: “Imagining something is there when it is, in fact, not,” as Bernard scoffingly tells Elsie after an android carves what looks like Orion’s belt into a series of statues, humans are “pattern-seeking, story-telling animals.”

We personify everything around us. Throughout history our species has imagined sentience in animals, plants, even weather patterns. Intellectuals, especially scientists, are trained to fight that instinct, and it seems to be that very battle that makes Guests and creators alike blind to the emerging intelligence of the Hosts they have created.

Only time will tell if the androids of Westworld are truly intelligent or just reflecting back at us. But as we have seen, the future Westworld presents is all too possible. The lesson to be taken from this is clear: We should prepare for this future’s swift and inevitable arrival. We can start by thinking hard about the nature of intelligence, artificial or otherwise, and perhaps even put ourselves in the Hosts’ shoes.

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About Ms. A. C. Kennedy

Ms. A. C. Kennedy
My name is Ms A C Kennedy and I am a Health practitioner and Consultant by day and a serial blogger by night. I luv family, life and learning new things. I especially luv learning how to improve my business. I also luv helping and sharing my information with others. Don't forget to ask me anything!

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What we’re watching: ‘Raw’ and ‘Feast of Fiction’

Welcome back to Video IRL, where several of our editors talk about what they've been watching in their spare time. This month we're kicking things off with some seasonally-appropriate horror fare, that you can catch right away on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Then it's time for a Gundam throwback before Kris Naudus points out a couple of YouTube food channels perfect for binge eating or binge watching.

Them / Raw


Timothy J. Seppala

Timothy J. Seppala
Associate Editor

To get into the Halloween spirit, I've been watching at least one horror movie a day since the end of September -- the lower the budget, the better. Problem is, so many of the American low-budget or indie horror offerings on Amazon and Netflix are crappy Paranormal Activity clones, cheap-thrill gore-fests or uninspired found-footage "documentaries." Whether it's by design or coincidence, I've found that French horror movies have held my attention the most lately. Specifically, 2016's Raw, as well as Them, from ten years prior. They're more psychological thrillers than straight-up horror, but that didn't stop me from being more on edge while watching them one afternoon than I was during A Haunting in Saginaw, Michigan, late at night. Both start with a car crash, but they couldn't finish any more differently.

Raw, recently added to Netflix, tells the tale of a vegetarian girl in her first week at a prestigious veterinary school. During a hazing ritual, she's forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney. She immediately gets sick, throws up and wakes herself up that night scratching a full-body rash to near bleeding. This bout with food poisoning is just the beginning, though, and soon protagonist Justine finds out she has a taste for forbidden fruit. As the remaining 70-ish minutes unfolded, I lost track of how many times I clasped my hands over my mouth, agape in shock, to stifle my shouts of "OHMYGODWHATTHEFUCKISEVENHAPPENING?!"

But French director Julia Ducournau balances every body-horror scene either with something pedestrian twisted into being unsettling (like a horse on a treadmill) or with something that makes you ask how far Justine can go before someone confronts her about her new diet. And those questions keep coming right until the credits roll. I can't say I enjoyed watching Raw, but it was a hell of a ride.

The same goes for Them, currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Its focus is narrow, centering on a young couple living in a cavernous farmhouse, terrorized over the course of a night by unseen horrors. The camera never quite gives away who (or what) the perpetrators are, and revealing the twist would be a sin. As with Raw, its atmosphere and overall creepiness won me over straightaway. The scariest part? Realizing that I've probably driven past a shot like the final scene countless times and not thought twice about it. If you're willing to read subtitles, both of these should make you shiver and scream more than The Conjuring 2 on HBO Go could ever hope to.

Mobile Suit Gundam The 08th MS Team


David Lumb

David Lumb
Contributing Editor

I'd heard that a lot of anime had left Hulu, but I scanned their selection anyway looking for classic shows I'd missed, like the original Mobile Suit Gundam. They don't have that -- but they did have a series I didn't finish the first time it aired on Toonami, the 1996 classic Gundam side story The 08th MS Team. Unlike the franchise's other show released the year before, the massively successful Gundam Wing, 08th ditches the brand's typical pretty-boys-in-unbeatable-robots for a grounded and sobering story about the people who get caught up in wars -- desperate soldiers, civilians and guerrillas alike. It's dirty, honest, utterly humane and gorgeously animated.

It's also a little preachy and melodramatic, and it shows its age with odd sexist moments. While it's still the Thin Red Line of the Gundam universe, I remember it far more fondly from when my 14-year-old self grazed the series on its first American airing. There's something sad in seeing an old favorite for the flawed media it always was. Much like Waypoint's Rob Zacny, I've grown up and seen a lot since I first caught the show as a starry-eyed teen. I still think The 08th MS Team is a wonderful little 12-episode miniseries with a big heart, but I won't revere it so highly -- and will think a little harder about who I recommend it to.

Feast of Fiction / Binging with Babish


Kris Naudus

Kris Naudus
Senior Editor, Database

Back in March, I came home from a trip only to discover that my oven didn't work. The cooking gas in my building had been shut off due to a leak. My building management seemed to be on it, so I made do with a combination of microwavables, toaster oven and Seamless. Unfortunately, weeks and months went by, calls to the city were made and permits were issued, but, even as I write this in October, gas still has not been restored to my building. My landlords eventually threw their collective hands in the air and began installing electric ranges in every apartment, so a few weeks ago I was finally able to cook for myself again.

I am so jazzed to be able to make food. Hot food! Scrambled eggs! Steak! Cookies! I started reading food blogs and cookbooks, and shopping to refill my pantry. I'm halfway through Kenji Alt-Lopez's The Food Lab, a huge 900-page hardcover that talks about the science of how food cooks. On the lighter side, I've also been reading food-themed comics like Delicious in Dungeon and Food Wars. And the latter title (which is also an anime) ended up sucking me into a YouTube hole of food videos that I've been obsessed with ever since.

You see, the very first chapter of Food Wars features the "Gotcha" Pork Roast, a bacon-wrapped potato loaf that hero Soma Yukihira makes to save his family restaurant. It looks pretty tasty, so I searched for recipes and pics online and stumbled onto Jimmy Wong and Ashley Adams' Feast of Fiction, a series that demonstrates how to make various foods seen in cartoons, video games and comics. If you ever wanted to taste Steven Universe's beloved Cookie Cat ice cream sandwiches or Kirby's super-spicy curry, there's an episode for you. One thing I really enjoy is how they also incorporate crafts into it, showing how to make paper wrappers for your Reptar chocolate bars or genuine-looking Ecto Cooler Hi-C boxes.

I've been marathoning through the episodes, which the YouTube algorithms have definitely picked up on at this point, throwing food show after food show into my suggestions. One that caught my eye was Binging with Babish. Where Feast of Fiction mostly sticks to the realm of kids' cartoons, anime and video games, Binging with Babish is a little more mainstream, covering foods from popular media like Mad Men, Seinfeld and House of Cards. Still, there's a bit of overlap -- both Babish and Feast have done their own takes on the Ultimeatum from Regular Show and Krabby Patties from SpongeBob SquarePants. But the recipes are different, and I watch the shows for the personalities. Feast of Fiction is pretty silly (and there's a cute dog), while Binging with Babish is a little more subdued. Not that Babish can't be ridiculous as well -- the Moist Maker is one of the most ridiculously complicated sandwiches I have ever seen, basically asking you to cook an entire Thanksgiving dinner.

Sadly, I still haven't done a lot of actual cooking since getting my stove back. I'm having too much fun watching other people do it instead, with the added bonus that I don't have to clean up the mess.

"IRL" is a recurring column in which the Engadget staff run down what they're buying, using, playing and streaming.

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