If you are looking for a thorough analysis of the impact AI might have on jobs, there are probably better places to begin than with HBO’s latest 10-part television series. For the same reasons you wouldn’t turn to Terminator, or Blade Runner, so you probably wouldn’t expect much in the way of accuracy from a series described as "the new Game of Thrones".
But there are other reasons – besides for the graphic sex and violence which normally accompanies an HBO series – for watching Westworld rather than reading Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s magnificent book The Second Machine Age.
This is because nobody really knows what the future will look like. And so in order to imagine the impact which AI might have on our working lives, we really need to use our imaginations. Westworld does just that.
Based on a 1974 film in which anthropomorphic robots play host to human tourists in a specially created American-Western themed amusement park, it imagines what it might be like for humans to rub shoulders with androids, raising all sorts of dangerous and exciting possibilities over the extent of a ten-part series.
New kinds of employment and entertainment
To begin with: the job market. It has become commonplace to claim that a great number of jobs will simply ‘disappear’ with the development of AI. According to one oft-cited paper, as many as 47% of jobs in the US are susceptible to automation over the next two decades. But as Luke Dormehl recently wrote in HRZone, this outlook does not account for the new jobs that will emerge.
And indeed, just as there are now SEO experts and social media gurus, so in Westworld are there all manner of support staff to maintain and improve the robot hosts, and to maximise the experience of the guests, from coders to engineers.
Westworld helps us to imagine the new possibilities for employment and entertainment that emerge when AI comes to work.
The point is that it is not a case of AI simply replacing humans; it is much more interesting than that. Westworld helps us to imagine the new possibilities for employment and entertainment that emerge when AI comes to work. As Anthony Hopkins’ character and park creator Robert Ford says:
“The guests don’t return for the obvious things… they come back because they discover something they think no one had ever noticed before.”
Westworld and working life
In imagining what working life might be like in thirty, forty, even fifty years time, we can discuss endlessly the ways in which the nature of work might change – for example to make more space for the exercise of human creativity, empathy and relationship skills. The crucial turn in Westworld however, is to take seriously the experience of the robots. What will working life be like for them?
These are robots which are designed to look and act and suffer like human beings, so as to make the experience of interacting with them more 'real'. While the guests are given license to do whatever they want without fear of retribution, the robots can be shot, stabbed, bullied or raped. The next day however, they are programmed to forget that anything has happened, repeat their designated 'narrative loops', and put themselves at the mercy of the human tourists or 'newcomers' once more.
Are these robots really empty inside? Can we trust them? Should we feel sorry for them?
“Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world. The disarray. I choose to see the beauty” says the robot Dolores, in an episode which sees her father and boyfriend murdered, and herself raped by a particularly nasty Ed Harris.
Although characters are repeatedly told that the robots are empty inside, that they only simulate suffering, we can imagine all sorts of ethical questions which might arise in an AI future involving creations such as Dolores… Are these robots really empty inside? Can we trust them? Should we feel sorry for them? Who do they report to? And what happens when they begin to think for themselves?
Leadership and learning
If Westworld is in many ways a story of the corporate abuse and exploitation of robotic bodies, it also holds out a redemptive hope. Indeed, the overarching narrative of Westworld is about the robots taking over the park, joining forces in unexpected ways with their creators and human collaborators.
As a representative of a leadership development consultancy, I would even like to suggest that in so doing Westworld enacts a particular ideal of leadership and learning which involves moving beyond what is known or in existence at any time.
Learning happens through experience, reflection and dialogue – and not in one-off training events. Likewise in Westworld, consciousness isn't created in a single moment; rather the process of learning becomes integral to the plot. Robots and humans learn from each other, through relationship, through dialogue, and are spurred by emergent leaders to pursue the freedom to shape their own lives.
Learning happens through experience, reflection and dialogue – and not in one-off training events.
One example of this conjunction of leadership and learning is in the constant refrain of the series: "Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?" This is a perfect example of critical reflexivity, or the ability to question the everyday assumptions we take for granted.
There is a utopian hope here buried in the brains of the robots: that we can change the nature of our reality through a courageous process of critical questioning. This is a vital insight for leaders today who take too much for granted, e.g. the pressures on them to perform, or the mental health of their employees.
Where do you stand?
There are certainly a great many risks and possible dangers with the rise of AI, as well as a great deal to be excited about. Ultimately, Westworld asks us what we want to do with AI, what kind of characters we wish to be, what kind of choices to make.
Where do you stand? There is plenty more that could be said… and still another four episodes to come!