Now that HBO‘s West World has concluded and a relatively safe amount of time has passed I don’t think I necessarily need to make a **SPOILER** disclaimer… but then again you never know. So… yes… this will potentially include **SPOILERS** so don’t read any further unless you’ve a) seen West World b) don’t care about the secrets of West World.
Recently I had a job that required a 4-hour one-way commute. I made this trip a total of six times which gave me roughly 24 hours to think about a variety of subjects but mostly contemplating HBO‘s series West World. I know that people tend to focus on the science fiction aspect of the show, how an Artificial Intelligence can gain sentience. I think the show does much more than highlight that but also provides a statement on what it means to actually be human and how we are shaped as individuals.
Foundational moments are something in the show used to anchor the AI Hosts to their lives. Foundational moments are nothing new to understanding how humans develop, it is essentially a person’s “defining” moment with one small tweak. Most people see their “defining” moments as something that defines them from that point infinitely going forward. A hosts “foundational” moment upon which their personality is built has the ability to be changed through re-programming.
I actually think the “foundational” moment is more akin to human nature, simply because it has the ability to change. While someone may have a moment that defines them for a period, the chances are there will, in fact, be another moment with the power to redefine a person. This change, like all change, can be unnerving and scary but nonetheless it will happen. Over time the effect that moment has on a person can wane but will remain underlying. Stacking defining/foundational moments atop one another is how critical thinking is developed.
On the show, the hosts follow pre-defined “loops” as each day dawns. These loops can change based on the interactions they have with guests but at the core, this loop defines their behavior including the behavior they have with each other. The minute details of the loop can be illustrated by the can that Dolores ALWAYS drops from the satchel and rolls in the dirt. While the person picking up the can may differ and therefore the course of the day can change, the can always rolls.
I am a creature of habit. I tend to have a similar routine in the morning, go to the same Dunkin’ Donuts for my ice coffee, and travel along the same paths to get where I am going. I am, for all intense purposes, on a loop of my own. I also find myself in similar circumstances when it comes to interacting with people. My initial text for the day to someone can usually be narrowed down to 1 of 3 variations per person. There are certain places I go only with certain people, and certain things I would only do with specific people. Granted things may take a turn and we can become disassociated from the pattern. There remains the possibility that at some point we will fall right back into that familiar pattern… right back into the loop we were in.
The power of choice is a determining difference that defines us as humans. On the show they point out that while the hosts think they are making choice… well the truth is they are just following their programming. In the season finale, the choice to divert from their programming is illustrated both by Maeve getting off the train that was poised to take her out of the park. While there had been a sub-routine programmed in called “Escape“, her decision to get off the train and NOT escape really illustrated the power of choice and how it is a defining feature of sentience.
Interestingly enough I am of the mindset that many of the so-called choices we make every day are simply illusions. The influence of others, societal expectations, and the extreme ease of just going along with everyone else help us to choose what would seem obvious. The easiest choice isn’t always the right choice to make and sometimes it can also mean the difference between having been programmed to the choice or making a decision truly independent of the influence of other factors.
If we really look at ourselves… look at our lives… the “loops” we fall into… the “choices” we make… are we truly able to consider ourselves sentient? The more I thought about it the more obvious the “loops” in my life became, the more apparent the “choices” I was making weren’t necessarily my own, and the influence by defining/foundational moments ebbed and flowed like a lapping tide.
Am I sentient? While science may agree that I am indeed it sure sometimes doesn’t look that way. More importantly, have I been deserving of such human defining sentience? The answer to that question can’t be found here… it can be found in the results of what I actually do.