Warning: This article contains Westworld season one spoilers and a high dosage of speculation about the future of AI, video games, and virtual reality.
A lot of hosts died in the first season of Westworld. A. Lot. If you felt fatigued watching host after host get shot, stabbed, or choked, you weren't alone. But now think about whatever number of hosts may have died in season one of Westworld (or in the entire history of the fictional park), and compare that number to the number of deaths that have occurred in video games like Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, and Counter-Strike. It doesn't even come close, right?
The idea behind the Westworld theme park is that it draws in good people who want to taste what it means to be bad — rob a saloon in the morning, drink until the evenin', spend the night in a brothel. But obviously one of the most, if not the most, powerful draws of Westworld is that it allows guests to imitate killing. And where do normal folk go in current times to fulfill their lust for doing just that?
One hint: It involves a screen and two thumbs.
Because only people lying to themselves would ever say that humanity isn't going to pretend at violent play, and because AI and VR technologies are advancing so quickly, it seems reasonable to assume that the three realms are going to intersect. And because of this likely intersection, it makes far more sense to have a Westworld-type theme park exist in a virtual reality world before it ever exists in reality — if it ever could.
Aside from the immense clean-up and recycling processes involved with slaughtering and re-building hosts, there are other reasons to believe that we will be entering a Westworldian (can we make that a word?) park from our couches long before we take a real train to visit one.
First off, it seems that in general, AI tends to be tested in the world of bits before it's tested in the world of blood. A video game is the perfect testing ground for AI because the stakes are so low.
Google DeepMind for example, the company behind the AI that defeated World Go Champion Lee Sedol, turned its sights on Starcraft II beginning in November of this year. In an Associated Press release, the company said that "StarCraft is an interesting testing environment for current AI research because it provides a useful bridge to the messiness of the real-world." It added that "The skills required for an agent to progress through the environment and play StarCraft well could ultimately transfer to real-world tasks."
Google DeepMind's AI playing Starcraft II.
OpenAI, Elon Musk's AI non-profit (with an endowment of about $1 billion), recently launched its own virtual outlet for testing AI programs dubbed "Universe." Universe is aiming to train AI programs to be able to work across any software on any platform, and to help them to develop a general capability to master any program thrown at them. But as Wired notes, Universe is starting off with about a thousand video games because "games have always served as a natural training tool for AI."
On top of video games allowing players to pile up bodies without the need for clean-up or reconstruction, as well as video games naturally lending themselves to AI more so than the real world, a VR Westworld park would also be way way cheaper.
In episode three, Logan hints that the park costs $40,000 a day. Which is fine if you have Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark money, but for the vast majority of people on Earth that's an immediate no-go. Video games on the other hand, well, who doesn't have at least one box of video games collecting dust somewhere in their home right now?
Video game graphics are also improving at an insane clip, which, when taken with advanced VR headsets and haptic suits, combine to create a strong case for people getting their bloodlust out while sitting on the couch rather than riding around a real park.
Plus, with a VR Westworld, when the hosts decide to slay the Gods, the Gods can just take off their headsets.
There are a couple of caveats here. While a VR Westworld would never lead to a Tron situation (although wouldn't that be sweet?), it's still possible to imagine that the sentient AI players of a Westworld-like video game could manipulate human players somehow — a lá Ex Machina. Or, to really stretch it, maybe even something like "Playtest" from Black Mirror could occur. But still: who's got $40,000 a day?
What do you think about a Westworld-type park inhabiting the VR space before it ever comes into reality? Do you think humanity would ever bring video game violence into reality with robots? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!