Wild, Wild Westworld?
I have been watching HBO’s new hit show Westworld over the past few days, and it is very entertaining. Not only is the plot engrossing, but the ideas that the show puts forth and the themes that it explores are fascinating. For those that haven’t yet watched the show or heard about it around the water cooler (don’t worry, no real spoilers ahead), the premise is that in the future there is a “theme park” filled with robots, virtually indistinguishable from humans, that wealthy individuals visit to indulge their every vice. Due to some mysterious machinations, the robots are gaining consciousness about their status as expendable (and poorly treated) machines, and are beginning to respond in very human ways.
Besides the obvious topics of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the show also makes me think of:
- The recent example of a person “reviving” her dead friend as a chatbot, using the deceased’s old text messages as an input to a machine learning algorithm
- The “simulation hypothesis,” popularized by Elon Musk, which posits that we are all living in a simulation
- The idea that the human race is no longer evolving, and a post by VC Mark Peter Davis that argues that “Natural selection no longer determines how man evolves. Man does — through innovation.”
In particular, the last of these ideas is interesting to me, and, I think, particularly relevant to the entrepreneurial community. As Davis states in his post, “Natural selection is dead […] The forces of change have transferred from nature to man. And the method has transitioned from killing off the weak to re-programming, editing and adapting the lives and bodies of everyone.” This is, in many ways, true and growing truer by the day. So many of the things that once would have spelled certain death and the end to a given genetic line are now addressed via relatively simple medical treatments (at least in the developed world). What does this mean?
Davis ends his post with, “What it means to be part of our species is evolving rapidly, but none of it is driven by evolution. It’s driven by innovation. And therein lies the opportunity.” To interpret and elaborate on this statement a bit, I would assert that there is a meaningful shift in terms of how we as humans do and will define concepts like “power and influence,” “success,” and even “reproduction” going forward.
As we have seen with the rise of so many of the tech giants in Silicon Valley, “power and influence” can arise from reaching audiences with a valuable service (and gathering data on those audiences) at a massive scale. As Paul Graham put forth in his essay “Cities and Ambition,” definitions of success can and will vary based on localized cultural norms (e.g. New York values money, Boston values smarts, Silicon Valley values power, etc.). And “reproduction,” to take the word back to its literal definition, will increasingly consist of the proliferation of one’s ideas and, as a result, of one’s influence, rather than of one’s genetic material. Just take a look at all the VCs that aggressively tweet and blog about their perspectives to spread their ideas and to increase their odds of success.
We live in exciting and evolving (pun intended) times. There is, perhaps, much that Westworld and other shows have wrong, but also much that they have right. Or at least right enough that the ideas are worth considering and taking to their logical extremes to see what the future might hold.
-Teddy Lee, Editor