Determinisim vs free will in Westworld
Algorithmic Determinism: An algorithm whose behaviour can be completely predicted from the input.
Over the last few years big data has come to the attention of the world, with Mark Zuckerberg justifying privacy breaches and collecting data to US Senate investigations.
Predictive technology or as tech giants like to call it “algorithmic determinism” runs our online lives every day whether we like it or not. From online shopping to social media, data is collected on our choices every day, from suggestions of what article to read, to what we should buy online.
So what if this data was used to make even bigger decisions for us? Like to determine what jobs we should apply for, or who we should date or marry? Or how long our lives would be?
The HBO series Westworld has been working through the futuristic implications of this idea throughout its three seasons.
Initially seasons one and two were set in an ‘adult theme park’ where people’s basest desires were indulged in a series of historically-created worlds populated by robot hosts. The big reveals for its first two seasons were that the company that created the park (Delos) was collecting data on the human visitors in the park to use in some sinister way.
As the third season of Westworld is now airing, the HBO show has taken a dramatic turn and assisted the robot hosts to escape to what they believed to be freedom in the real world, only to discover that while the hosts at Westworld were stuck in their endless loops, humanity is not that much different.
“We [humans] live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do; seldom questioning our choices, content for the most part to be told what to do next.”
Dr Ford (Anthony Hopkins, Westworld, Season Two)
The Netflix effect
“One of the things that is happening is ‘the Netflix effect’ that decides what you should watch next based on your choices, by some algorithm in the sky,” explained creator Jonathan Nolan at Comic Con in San Deigo late in 2019. “So picture this applied to your whole life and when you talk to technologists and they talk about ‘algorithmic determinism’ in kind of hushed terms, because they have already built it.”
Taking historical data and breaking it down to infer choices based on behaviour is used via artificial intelligence and powers Google, Facebook and every streaming service. These algorithms are in essence used to determine human behaviour.
“I feel terrified that data has surpassed oil in terms of its global value. You even look at our relationship to social media and how our existence has been commodified. And you’re stuck on a loop to a certain extent because algorithms are kind of telling you what you want to see and how you want to live,” explains Tessa Thompson (who plays Charlotte Hale in Westworld). “One of the central ideas in season three is that the hosts have the idea that they want to get out of the park to find freedom and they get into the world and have to ask how free it really is.”
This is sure to be one of the big concepts that Westworld season three explores.
In season three, a global company called Incite uses an orbital supercomputer called Rehoboam developed by Engerraund Serac (Vincent Cassel) and his brother, to chart the path of the world. Serac and his brother believe they can change the course of civilisation through god-like algorithms to determine humanity’s path. What he discovers is that the ‘divergences’ in the system, like his own brother, are unpredictable and therefore dangerous.
“For the most part humanity has been a miserable little band of thugs stumbling from one catastrophe to the next. But we have changed that. For the first time, history has an author. And up until recently, the system has been working perfectly, but there is someone we haven’t accounted for. ”
Serac (Vincent Cassel, Westworld Season three)
Rehoboam in the Bible was the son of the wise king Solomon and grandson of David. Rehoboam was unfit for the task of ruling and his harsh treatment of the northern tribes of Israel led to them rebelling. Soon Solomon’s son was left with only the Kingdom of Judah, which was much smaller than the United Monarchy of Israel he had inherited.
What this means for the computer in Westworld with Rehoboam’s name remains to be seen.
It takes escaped host Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) to find the chink in the dues ex machina and reveal Rehoboam’s plan to enslave humanity with its predictive algorithms.
With Incite and Rehoboam, Westworld is combining two science fiction concepts into one disturbing dystopian vision. The first is the aforementioned determinism, or the concept that we are not in control of our own destinies and everything that happens was preordained via the mathematics of day-to-day life. The other is less like science fiction and more like what we’re living through now in the age of big data where all of our information is tracked and analysed.
Westworld asks: What if computing catches up to the point where “tracking” switches to “determining?”
Westworld showrunners and creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy confirmed their vision for the season in a post episode one HBO feature on Westworld’s Facebook page.
“We live in a world now where between social media, location tracking, phone calls, emails, there is a digital trail for each of us,” Joy says.
“What if 30 more years elapse of exactly the trajectory we’re on now? What does that world look like?” Nolan adds.
While the robotic host technology in Westworld’s first two seasons seemed impossibly complex and futuristic, a super computer that runs the world somehow seems a little more disturbingly plausible.
We often talk about the difference between free will and determinism and Westworld often comes out on the side of the latter. It’s often cited quote “These violent delights have violent ends” is in itself, a form of algorithmic determinism.
Determinism would have us believe that we all act in endless “loops” and these loops determine our everyday lives. Yes, there are certain social norms that require us to act a certain way for both our health (eight hours sleep a night) and our well-being (exercising and keeping healthy), but this isn’t determinism. If we did what we wanted, when we wanted, we would live in a dystopian nightmare based on all our base instincts which is the parable that Westworld represents for us.
Intelligence and truth
Despite all this, as Thandie Newton explains of her character Maeve in Westworld: “Power in Westworld is about intelligence and the truth. It’s the principal that Maeve is fighting for, the principle that we cannot harm innocent beings.”
God requires that we treat others with love and empathy and this is what makes us more like Him and less like the base humans we could be. This is free will, not determinism.
We have a Saviour that has borne all the ills of humanity on a cross and given us a choice. We can turn off our devices and cease being slaves to algorithms that tell us what to do.
We don’t need a super computer to tell us that.
Seasons one, two and three of Westworld are available on Foxtel and digital platforms.
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