The Algorithms Constraining Westworld’s Season Finale

by Bill Softky

The Algorithms Constraining Westworld’s Season Finale

by Bill Softky

We theorists love making wildly specific predictions based on very little data. After all, predicting without data is the regime where theory does best.

So coming Sunday’s Season Finale of HBO’s popular and confusing series Westworld seems like a perfect chance to make some predictions based on software and business principles that I have used for years (my research specialty is human and machine intelligence, and my wife’s is narrative theory; what better training to understand this series? Video commentary here:

HBO has already shown they know their stuff. They proved in Silicon Valley that they understand tech, and the Westworld story-world invokes software algorithms constraining android behavior, and business algorithms constraining software.

Lucky for us, those principles are permanent and trustworthy, like laws of Nature. That’s a big help when confronting a series built on multiple (nearly indistinguishable) timelines, perpetually reincarnated characters, and uncountable plot surprises and misdirections. What if we assume Westworld doesn’t follow magic made-up rules like Harry Potter, but real mathematical rules from real life? What could we learn? In a subsequent post we will ask how software constrains the plot; today, we ask how business does.

Westworld is a testing ground for Delos’ Android Army

In a series about world-altering technology built by a giant corporation, one would think viewers might learn something about the controlling corporation’s history, resources, leadership, philosophy, or strategic objectives. But no. All we find out is that management has grand secret agendas and projects, and that this Board, like many boards, has infighting and doesn’t trust its CTO (for good reason; the androids still aren’t trustworthy). Nothing to see here.

Since the writers are so coy about Delos, let’s ask about corporations in general. The Delos Corporation, like any corporation, intends to dominate the world, not so much from “evil,” but as the inescapable consequence of increasing shareholder-value without limit, up to 100% of the world. Delos seems on track to accomplish this very quickly, within a few seasons, using proprietary android technology. Why? Because with androids this good — androids like Bernard who can lead AI software teams undetected, for crying out loud! — one could take over the world, and corporations do what they can to get power. That simple.

The rollout of Delos’ Android Army would look something like this:

Development Phase 1: This past season proves androids’ ability to pass as human, and to influence human behavior. These abilities make them great gunfight-victims and sex toys. They also ought to make them good salesmen (remember how eagerly each android shills its “narrative” to guests in Sweetwater? They’re born salesmen, so to speak, as Logan warned William as they arrived). Phase 1 also gathers enormous amounts of “behavioral data” on the guests themselves, taken at high resolution under real-life test conditions, data which should make manipulation and blackmail of these rich, important people much easier in the future.

This business plan hews to a tried-and-true model in the tech business: get your early adopters to pay the high price of initial development, testing, and deployment. I imagine Westworld costs more than $40k/day/guest to operate — all that android surgery alone must cost that much — but that revenue boost has got to help a lot, and the guests as flesh-and-blood beings provide both practice and evaluation for the androids as their software is improved. Brilliant!

Phase 2: Pressure-test android-human interactions over extended time, presumably next season. This should take place in a free-for-all interaction space, pitting android against human on equal terms. We almost have that level of equality already in the fringe town Pariah, where guest can be hurt, and we see humans and androids overlapping in their characteristics. For example, the Man in Black becomes more loop-driven, even as Maeve and Dolores break their own loops.

A symmetrical guest/host melee would be the “Final Narrative” envisioned by Ford. Still located inside the park, it can serve two goals: Delos’ goal of extended android testing before deployment, and Ford’s less transparent goal to validate his software countermeasures against android disobedience and rebellion.

Phase 3, real-world testing, would mix androids and humans in some safe space outside the park, like a small town somewhere, presumably in Season 3. The aliens-in-our-midsts scenario has been done before (say, in the one-season wonder SyFy series The Event), but swapping out self-aware corporate androids in place of immigration-minded aliens will provide loads more narrative possibility.

Phase 4 would deploy the androids unsuspected into positions of global power, whether as salesmen, as technologists like Bernard (that was easy!), or as CEOs and politicians. Given how most leaders fight each other, having even half of world leaders surreptitiously in one’s pocket would provide reliable control. Delos would have secret board seats everywhere. The completion of Phase 4 would be world domination.

So it’s easy to see why and how Delos could rule the world, but we still can’t tell when they’ll succeed, or when HBO will tell us their real plans. Two seasons from now? Three? Coming Sunday? Unfortunately, general principles can’t sub for data. That’s why we watch.