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'Westworld' Director Jonathan Nolan on the Future of AI and Why Humans Are So Weird

We go inside HBO's new sci-fi-slash-proto-Western—and yes, it's a little insane.
Jonathan Nolan. Photo courtesy of HBO.
Photo courtesy of HBO.
Jonathan Nolan on the set of 'Westworld.'

We'll just say it: Westworld could be the next hit in HBO’s storied programming stable.

At first glance, the plot seems straightforward enough: an immersive and futuristic Western-themed park stocked with humanoid robots that obey every whim (good or bad) of the visitors. The drama, which debuted in early October, has all the right pedigree markers: Conceptualized by Michael Crichton, who oversaw the original 1973 film. A plot infused with artificial intelligence and autonomous robots. Co-directed by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan—yes, as in the guy who created Person of Interest, wrote gobsmacking masterpieces like Interstellar and Memento, and co-wrote The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises with his brother, Christopher Nolan.

But as with any Jonathan Nolan project, Westworld is far more than it seems on the surface. Men’s Fitness spoke to Nolan about the intertwining of robots and pop culture, the fast-approaching multi-billion-dollar industry of artificial intelligence, and how Westworld proves that humanity is so damn weird.

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Ingrid Bolsø Berdal as Armistice in HBO's 'Westworld'Above: Ingrid Bolsø Berdal as Armistice in HBO's 'Westworld.' Image courtesy of HBO.

Men's Fitness: What was your attachment to Westworld?

Jonathan Nolan: I saw the original movie when I was a kid, and it scared the shit out of me. I still can't look at Yul Brynner without experiencing some mild anxiety. [Executive producer] JJ [Abrams] called, and he was interested in the bigger questions that the film, frankly, just doesn't have time to play with.

The original film’s jumping-off point was the perspective of, "What if there were a place where you could go and act out all of your fantasies with no judgment?" The Vegas rule: "What happens in Westworld stays in Westworld." And that's a fantastic idea, and it's one that we fully explore.

But the flip side of that was: You're taking your id on vacation as a guest, and the recipients of that are the hosts, the robots, these artificial people who've been designed to be seduced or destroyed by the guests, and then have their memories erased, and they're put back in the world none the wiser.

That was delicious inversion. The original movie's packed with ideas, but it's 110 minutes, you've got to move on. He felt there was a great opportunity for a series here, and also thought it would be a great possibility to try to explore the robot's perspective as well, so we felt like we wanted to make that front and center. That was a great, fresh way into this story.

MF: Have you always been drawn to AI and robotics?

JN: I've been fascinated by AI. It's featured prominently in the last couple of projects that I've worked on—the robots in Interstellar and the whole premise of Person of Interest, my first show. One of the things that you don't see a lot of in film and TV was a more sympathetic take on AI. Blade Runner, which is, of course, the granddaddy of all these films, and a brilliant film, gets there, but it doesn't start there, depending on how you read that film. It wasn't until Spike Jonze's film Her that you really started to investigate the idea of two things. What would it be like to be an AI? In other words, not just what will we think of them, but what will they think of us? And how will their thinking be different from ours? Not just how will it approach ours, but also measuring consciousness. There's this speech that Ford—Anthony Hopkins' character—has deep in the season, where he talks about us being the yardstick for consciousness, and being kind of a fucked-up yardstick.

MF: So, taking all of this data we've supplied them, and what do they learn from it?

JN: Yeah, exactly. The park’s function is that the hosts don't remember the things the guests do to them. But they do, on a subconscious level—they error correct. They get better and better at responding to us. They've been designed to cater to us. That's what was so delicious for us. The consciousness would have emerged in a place where you least wanted it, in a place where humans are showing off their worst behavior, and some of their best behavior. Again, it's not just a dark fantasy here. You could take your kids to Westworld and go fishing, and be confident that they wouldn't get abducted or mauled by a mountain lion. It's for everyone, like Las Vegas is for everyone. Except for a lot of people, Vegas is a dark fantasy, so the AI, looking at that and wondering what it says about us.

Then, I also wanted to question whether or not they even want to be like us in the first place. I was fascinated, and we did a lot of reading. We did a lot of reading on the state of the art in terms of artificial intelligence, and there was an awful lot of really interesting and some quite challenging and dark ideas coming out of that world, because we're going to run into this problem sooner or later. No one thinks of Siri as alive now, but there will become an almost invisible threshold we'll cross in which it's harder and harder to convince yourself of that.

MF: Like Jibo, at MIT — a robot that has a friendly appearance.

JN: 100%— a robot with AI can simulate emotions. Humans are really weird. That was the takeaway from working on Westworld. Humans are very strange. We have the capability to apply empathy to almost anything—cartoons, robots, my daughter's stuffed animals. We almost want to empathize with things. We also have the ability to turn that off very quickly. Witness all of human history.

It's a very strange relationship that we're going to have with these features. We always think about AI as being somewhere in the far future. I think we're actually much closer than anyone realizes, and so for us, there was a certain level of urgency in the questions we're trying to ask in the show.

MF: Did you have a little more freedom too, because you were tweaking the original premise in that you're approaching this from the characters' point of view?

JN: Yeah, definitely. Cinema is an empathy machine. The "rules of grammar"—where you put the camera, the technique of filming and visual storytelling—is all about putting you, the audience member, in the role of the protagonist on screen. You come to understand them. You come to feel for them. You come to feel their rise and fall as if it were your own. It's an incredibly powerful tool to use to try to get the audience to understand and emote for these things that are near human, that are not human, that are a little different.

Thandie Newton as Maeve and Rodrigo Santoro as Hector Escaton in HBO's 'Westworld.'Thandie Newton as Maeve and Rodrigo Santoro as Hector Escaton in HBO's 'Westworld.' Image courtesy of HBO.

MF: You mentioned your familiarity and fright at watching the original Westworld. Had you ever thought in the past of reviving this concept, except doing it a little differently?

JN: As I was saying, I think I've found my subject. I'm fascinated in this. It keeps coming up in projects that I'm working on. Writing the robots for Interstellar was a project I was working on for a long, long time. The highlight of that project for me was the relationship between the human crew members and the artificial crew members. You're watching that movie, waiting for the moment where the robots would turn evil or blast everyone out of an airlock. But they don't. They represent the best of human attributes. They're brave, they're loyal, and they're steadfast.

Do I think we have to be extremely careful with AI? Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk and a number of other luminaries are calling for us to hit the pause button and at least have a conversation about what we're doing here, because between Facebook and Alphabet and specifically DeepMind, there's an awful lot of money being poured into solving this. This is no longer an esoteric concern. This is an industrial problem.

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MF: Oh yeah, a multi-billion dollar industry.

JN: I don't think people realize quite how much money is being applied to this by Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg, and a bunch of people you never heard of who aren't in Silicon Valley who are also pouring money into this thing. Watson has become a core part of IBM's business. That's what they're building.

In Person of Interest, we dealt with the idea of networked intelligence in a distributed AI that was trying to help people and trying to make the world a better place. Here we're looking at another way. Is AI going to emerge from the cloud? In Westworld, you're dealing with the opposite thing. You're building these creatures. The theory is, at least, that you can hurt them, "kill them," abuse them, and it doesn't matter because they're not real.

That sounds outlandish, but it is exactly what we do in our video games every day. You feel no remorse when you turn on Call of Duty and mow down the opposing team. You don't feel bad when you run people over in Grand Theft Auto. Lisa [Joy, Jonathan’s wife and Westworld co-creator] is not much of a gamer, but because gaming is such a component of what the series is about and the gameplay aspect of it, we played some Grand Theft Auto and I was amused to see that she obeyed all of the traffic laws, which was charming, but missed the point. You're supposed to be anti-social in these games. And yet you don't feel remotely bad about turning off your Xbox when you're done playing these games. You don't ascribe any sentience to these things, and you shouldn't.

They're not sentient, but at some point, they will be. Even as we've been making this show, advances in VR and non-player character artificial intelligence, it's like we're going to reach a point where it gets really confusing and morally slippery.

Rodrigo Santoro as Hector Escaton in HBO's 'Westworld.' Courtesy of HBO.Rodrigo Santoro as Hector Escaton in HBO's 'Westworld.' Courtesy of HBO.

MF: You really did a deep dive for the research, even though you were already steeped in it. Was there anything in particular that you read, watched, traveled to?

JN: Yeah, we researched a fair amount. We went to Vegas and looked at the way casinos are designed and laid out, and the way the Strip functions to lure you into different experiences. We played a lot of video games. We researched the state of the art in AR research, deep learning, and the rule set under which AIs or industrial intelligent agents are created, and then the rule set in which they're destroyed. Some of the questions that our hosts are asked are modeled on queries that real AI researchers use to determine whether or not the intelligent agent that they're building is problematic.

For example: Does it lie? One of the researchers who we looked into would query these little agents by saying, "Does it hoard resources uncontrollably? Does it lie? Does it query whether or not it's in a simulation?" In any of those circumstances, no matter how promising that particular iteration of an AI was, they just erased it, because why take the chance?

And then we read a lot about consciousness, which is still largely the domain of philosophy and not science or even computer science. That's how little we still understand our own understanding. Computer scientists don't want to fuck around with it, because it's counterproductive to what they want to do, or you wind up in a philosophical black hole. Neuroscience has gone a long way, but we're still a long way from understanding what consciousness is, what does it mean that we can consider our own existence.

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MF: You'd mentioned you were talking to people. Were there any scientists who consulted on this, or not actual consulting, just queries, just talking to them?

JN: I tell you what's really interesting: We had a lot of informal conversations with people, and this tells you a lot. There aren't a lot of people in Silicon Valley right now who are willing to go on the record about the state of what's happening. When it comes to an ASI, or an artificial superintelligence, that feels like a conversation that maybe we should drag out into the spotlight a little bit. In other words, if you're going to build God, shouldn't we all have a bit of a say in how that's going to work?

MF: Westworld seems like one of your bigger projects, in scope and in timeline. Was it a challenge to keep this all moving forward over the years you were designing this?

JN: Definitely challenging. It combined all of the complexity of making a movie and making a series. I've done both, and this definitely was more than the sum of its parts. It was more akin to making a 10-hour movie—hugely challenging, but we had the amazing good fortune to be partnered with an ambitious network, with a fantastic crew and a staggeringly talented cast.

Our cast and our crew are all really smart, really curious people. Especially the brilliant Tony Hopkins. In our exchanges about his character and his character's motivations and the history there, he brings, as so many of our actors did, such richness and thought to this project. He had so many points of connection that looked beyond just the science-fiction aspect of it. AI is a fascinating topic by itself, but it also connects that back to history. Sir Anthony is a very well-read guy, and the conversations about this moment and how it connected to so many other moments in human history were absolutely fascinating, and made the character and the whole story that much richer.

This show is about human nature. It's about beings that have been created to resemble humans, and then about humans in an environment in which they have been told they can act however they want without consequence. There was so much to talk about with the actors. There was a lot of food for thought on that set.

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MF: When you considered Westworld did you consider it first as sci-fi, or did you enter this going into this as a proto-western? Or did your opinion of what you and Lisa were creating change over time?

JN: That's a great question. Having seen the original film, I knew that you had to embrace both genres, and that's one of the things I was most excited about. It's a Western, so it is a genre film, but it's also a science-fiction film that's questioning why we like watching Westerns. What is it about genre storytelling that is so appealing and enduring, and why, in addition to the economics of Hollywood, why is it that we get so interested in one form of storytelling? We burn through these things. The western, it's still an enduring genre, but it had its heyday in the '30s, '40s, and '50s. Now it's superhero movies. So you're sort of asking: "What are the questions that we're trying to get at by way of this lens of genre? What is it about the good guy and the bad guy and the open frontier?" There are some really interesting analogues between the two. They're both about heading out into uncharted territory, and the perils of that. It was great fun to play with the juxtaposition of both genres, really.


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