Westworld: Why a disturbing robot visiting a pub could show the future of androids

The kind of robots depicted in the hit TV series are at once fascinatingly fantastical and chillingly real

Andrew Griffin
Wednesday 18 April 2018 15:59 BST
Ultra-realistic robot surprises public for Westworld

A robot enters a bar. But this isn't a joke: it's freakishly serious.

A new stunt shows pub goers being stunned to be joined by a uncannily human-looking android, before it breaks a glass. And the team behind it say it offers a hint at the future of exactly the kind of robots that could surround is in the future.

The robot, created by Now TV ahead of the beginning of the second season of Westworld, did not engage in any of the vintage hijinks or intense action that the androids in the films get involved with. But it does have something in common with it: going in the pub, and freaking out people who engage with it.

That was exactly what the creators of the stunt were aiming for, according to Now TV.

“We are still a long way away from creating artificially intelligent hosts as sophisticated as those in Westworld, but to celebrate the show’s return we wanted to give the general public a little taste of what is possible," said Emma Quartly, marketing director at NOW TV, which will show Westworld when it starts this weekend.

"Fred is the next generation in human-like robotics and so it seemed fitting to hand the show’s promotion over to him. Needless to say, there were some stunned reactions… especially when in true Westworld style he starts to glitch.”

But for the team who made the robot, the kind of conduct depicted in Westworld is at once fascinatingly fantastical and chillingly real. The British company that created it – Engineered Arts – has spent a long time creating robots for entertainment use and in theme parks, though as far as we know none of them have gone rogue or are the subject of their own entire fictional world.

“We've been making humanoids for 15 years now: typically most of that has been robots that look like robots,” says Will Jackson who founded Engineered Arts and serves as its director. “In the last couple of years we've started doing skinned robots that are much more realistic.”

It was one of those skinned robots that sat down with skinned humans in the pub as part of the stunt. (Tedroy Newell, on whom the robot was modelled, described the experience as "very, very strange" and described how delighted he was to meet his robot twin.)

These kind of robots are likely to be the future of the humanoids that surround us, at least for now, says Mr Jackson.

“In a nice parallel to the Westworld idea, most of our customers are theme parks. I see the show as quite a nice vision: it’s quite accurate.

“The sort of thing I don't believe in for robots is the robot butler idea. Domestic robots will generally be like your washing machine: it's a square box, it lives under your counter.

"But where you've got human interaction, when people want to interact with other people, then robots do make sense."

Mr Jackson says that he wouldn't like to work in Westworld, where the robots are biologically accurate and the series suggests that they have been put together in similar ways to how the human body is formed.

"That is a good way out but it's too yucky for me," he says. "The human body is full of wobbly bones and bits and bobs. But it's far more accurate than any industrial robot."

Still, Engineered Arts and all other creators of robots take tips from the form of the human body. As well as being a key way to make them more accurate and familiar to people, the human body seems to have got an awful lot right, and can offer good tips about how to put something together that has to do all the same things a person can.

"We look at the human body all the time," he says of his team's process. "It really does give you a sense that there must be a god somewhere – I'm not religious, but you do wonder how it ended up that way."

"It's spooky – and that's kind of why we do it," said Mr Jackson. "It's kind of the reason you go to a horror film.

"You might say you don't want to be scared – but actually there's part of you that does.

"It's sort of a reflection on the nature of humanity itself: it's holding up a mirror, by making something that looks like you.

"Is it OK to kill it? We're not at the point yet where I'd be worried about switching off one of our robots: I don't think it's anything more than a collection of electronic parts. But the day it does something I didn't expect – that's when I'll ask what to do."

It's a question that everyone in Westworld has asked themselves, and their answers vary from the compassionate to the dismissive. But it's also one that Mr Jackson is having to confront when he thinks about having made his own robot for Westworld – though in case the show, not its fictional world.

"We're pulling back the skin of the one we made for Now TV. And there is a definite sort of empathy and connection there – that's kind of the whole point, really. That's waht it's about.

"If we can still feel it then it's a very powerful experience."

And that's not the entirety of the science fiction work that Engineered Arts have been asked to do.

"We got asked by a multi-billionaire who wanted to have his brain transferred into a robot – I didn't think this person was serious, but they were," says Mr Jackson. "I think ethically I would feel very strange about that," he says, in part because of his aversion to the blood and guts that would be involved. "I wouldn't want to be dabbling around in biological things."

Working in robots brings with it all kinds of ethical dilemmas, of which the question of whether or not to transfer a person into a robot body is relatively simply. People tend to get very upset about Boston Dynamics' dog-shaped robot, for instance, objecting to people kicking it or bullying it – "people felt sorry for it and it didn't even have a head! It has no eyes!" notes Mr Jackson.

But he says that the AI that gives him real pause for thought isn't the kind of spectacular robots depicted in Westworld – it's the boring world of artificial intelligence.

"The kind of scary AI that we have now is not really in robot form. It's a web page," he says. "If you follow the money into who's putting the money into data, processing, deep learning – it's that kind of connectivity, number crunching, taking your job and so on.

"It's a political question, it's a human one."

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