Westworld’s Technology is a Bit Too Familiar for Comfort: What Happens When Robotics and 3D Printing Advance Too Far?

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mv5bmteyodk5ntc2mjneqtjeqwpwz15bbwu4mdq5ntgwotkx-_v1_sy1000_cr006741000_al_It’s that time of year again – when TV networks roll out their new ideas for audiences to judge. Some will fizzle out before a season has passed, while others will become the new national obsession. It’s usually pretty easy to tell right at the beginning which shows will flop and which ones will become hits, and right now, it’s looking like HBO’s Westworld is going to be one of the latter – maybe for a long time.

The concept is one that has fascinated people for decades, ever since robotic technology was first introduced. From Blade Runner to A.I., popular entertainment has focused on the disturbing question: what happens if robots become so advanced that the lines between human and machine start to blur? It’s a question that has become unsettlingly relevant nowadays as robots rapidly become more autonomous, and it’s not just sci-fi material anymore – even Stephen Hawking has warned that artificial intelligence has the real potential to evolve faster than humans and to end us all.

Westworld, which premiered last night, has been generating buzz for over a year, ever since HBO announced it would be joining their 2016 lineup. The story involves a theme park unlike any we’ve seen before – a Wild West-themed resort in which visitors can not only dress up like cowboys but completely immerse themselves in the fantasy that they’re gunslinging heroes or villains. The park is populated by “hosts” who help the guests act out their fantasies: robots who are indistinguishable from human beings in appearance and behavior.

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Evan Rachel Wood and Ed Harris. [Image: HBO]

The hook for Westworld guests is that they can do pretty much anything they want in the park without consequences. The hosts, who are programmed to act as cowboys, sheriffs, prostitutes and other characters from a typical Western, are there as objects for the guests’ desires – no matter how dark those desires may be. They can be hurt, killed, and subject to any sort of torture and abuse, and at the end of the day their “memories” are wiped so that they retain none of it.

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Anthony Hopkins as theme park creator/mad scientist. [Image: HBO]

It doesn’t take much more detail than that to guess that such a scenario is going to go seriously wrong. The hosts are going to begin to remember the things that have happened to them, and there are going to be consequences for both humans and robots. Saying any more than that would be to risk spoilers, but it’s a concept that feels disturbingly plausible – particularly because the show, while clearly set in the future, makes it clear that it’s not that far in the future. The technology – from the humans’ cell phones to the equipment used to create the robots – is very familiar-looking, in a way that suggests we’re only a few upgrades away from this potential future.

For example, it’s clear from the very beginning – in fact, even from the previews – it’s clear that robotics isn’t the only technology to thank (or to blame?) for the realism of the park’s hosts. Their bodies are repeatedly shown emerging from a giant vat of resin in a process that looks eerily similar to SLA 3D printing, but on a very large scale. In fact, last month’s announcement of the show’s official premier date was accompanied by a promotional model that was, in fact, 3D printed on an actual SLA printer, which you can see below:

That makes the show that much more disturbing, in my opinion, because it uses real technology to show how robots could potentially be designed to look exactly like living, breathing humans. We’re not at that point yet, in reality, but we’re getting closer every day – look at the 3D printed models that have recently begun to show up in medical schools, for example. Students are using these models, which are designed to feel like real flesh, to practice injections and other procedures in a way that feels real but doesn’t cause pain or risk to a human subject. Sounds familiar, no?

Obviously, practicing an injection on a realistic-feeling 3D printed arm is very different than the extremes depicted in Westworld, but it does make you think about how the show’s technology isn’t very far-fetched at all. Every day, robotics and 3D printing are evolving together to develop synthetic human components that look and behave more like real ones. Multiple researchers are working on developing 3D printed human skin, which is wonderful news for burn victims and other severely injured patients – but it’s not hard to imagine 3D printed skin being used to cover a life-sized, 3D printed human-shaped body made from pliable resin. Program that body with advanced artificial intelligence, add some functional 3D printed eyes and a few other components, and you’ve got something frighteningly close to Westworld.

The most effective horror, many people agree, is plausible horror – and while stories of robots gone wrong used to be pure escapism, they’re now very uncomfortably close to home. Westworld may be fantasy, but it’s fantasy with a warning – we need to be careful with our technology before it gets too far ahead of us. Discuss further in the Sci-Fi & 3D Printing forum over at 3DPB.com.

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