Westworld Creators Think Their Dystopia Is Humanity’s Best Chance

Westworld showrunners talk development of AI technology, and how it might be better than our "artificial stupidity."

Westworld Season 3 Dystopian Future Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy

Westworld does not promise a happy future. Set in a distant but tangible tomorrow where everything is synthetic—and luxury is to feign Old West grit—the HBO series predicts a destiny where the best case scenario is we get replaced by the more humane AI we create. Even so, as we stand on the edge of learning exactly what kind of world would invent that AI in Westworld Season 3 (or “Westworld III”), series showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy seem more comfortable than ever with their science fiction dystopia becoming our reality. Hence why the world beyond the park looks so inviting to Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). Like stars scattered across the ground.

“I like to say that when we started, Westworld was a dystopia,” Nolan says during the San Diego Comic-Con panel in Hall H. “Now three seasons in, it’s kind of a best case scenario, to be perfectly honest… The Ford AI we have on the show is thoughtful. I mean, murderous, but thoughtful, and I think we’re entering into the age of artificial stupidity. I think that’s where we’re headed now with this low-grade dumb algorithmic world.”

He further elaborates how Silicon Valley is leading the way in transitioning us to a lifestyle where everything is curated for you by apps on your phone and in the ether.

Says Nolan, “One of the things that is happening could be called, and HBO won’t like this, but the Netflix effect. Which is Netflix tells you what you want to watch next, because there is some giant algorithm in the sky that watches what you watch and decides you’re going to watch manga for the rest of the night. So just picture that but applied to every part of your whole life. And that kind of feels like the world. When you talk to technologists, they talk about algorithmic determinism in kind of hushed terms, because they know we’ve already built it. We’re already kind of in there.”

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It is perhaps for this reason both Nolan and Joy become cagey about any real-world analogues for their fictional dystopia’s architect, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), who welcomed his robotic creations becoming sentient and then superior. Joy names Shakespeare’s Prospero as a vague influence. Nolan, meanwhile, stops short of naming any person as a direct influence, but certainly has thought a lot about DeepMind and its founder Demis Hassabis. The showrunners did after all research DeepMind and other labs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere that are on the forefront of AI development.

“We heard a little bit about Demis’ work,” Nolan says. “Very smart guy, demonstrably, but some of the way that these things are crafted and built, these intelligences are being built out of the public eye, and that might not be a big deal or it may be the single biggest mistake humanity ever made. There is not a lot of oversight. A lot of people talk about this; Elon Musk talks about the need for transparency in the development of AI. If we’re all collectively building a god, it might be good if everyone gets a bit of a voice in how that’s being developed, what values it has.”

With that said, he concedes it makes for far better television that it is done outside of the public eye and inside of a sci-fi reality where the rich and powerful savor their violent delights. And judging by Dolores’ disappointment with the “real world” she entered in season 2, that future is not so different from our present. Nolan gave an interesting anecdote for the fusion of Western and Eastern aesthetics in Westworld’s unnamed cityscapes… which are a far cry from one of his and Christopher Noaln’s favorite films, Blade Runner (1981).

“My brother made me watch Blade Runner once a week, kind of a weird thing,” Nolan laughs about his childhood with Chris. “It’s such a brilliantly designed and produced film, and it set the look of what you think the future looks like.” Yet by the time the film’s setting came to pass—2019, in fact—our admittedly darker world still does not resemble the expressionistic squalor in that Ridley Scott masterpiece.

“The thing about dystopia is it can look pretty beautiful,” Nolan considers. “Just because the world is corrupt on the inside does not mean it cannot be smoothed over and pretty on the outside. So we wanted to find ourselves a version of a dystopia that didn’t look like anything we’ve seen before.”

He adds, “We’d been kind of planning this from the beginning. When writing the pilot, we’re like how the fuck are we going to shoot season 3? And the answer was rather than building it, because that’s one option, we went looking for it. We got on a plane, and we flew around. We dragged all these lovely people all over the place, and we found some pretty rad stuff.”

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read more: Westworld Was the First Draft for Jurassic Park

What will populate that world though? At least beyond the resurrected Dolores and Bernard, and whatever identity is now nestled in a replica of Charlotte Hale’s body. The entire Westworld panel at SDCC was much more circumspect in this regard, although Evan Rachel Wood offered this enigmatic nugget about the new relationship between her Dolores and Aaron Paul’s Caleb, who will be introduced at some point in season 3.

“I think her interactions with Aaron make her challenge her ideas about humanity,” Wood says. Given the current direction of human events though, is that a good thing?

Westworld Season 3 premieres on HBO in 2020.

Read and download the Den of Geek SDCC 2019 Special Edition Magazine right here!

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David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.