Androids and free will

In West World, androids are so perfected and the comparison to human characters is stretched so much that one does wonder what makes us human. For those of you who haven’t watched the series, West World is a theme park full of sophisticated androids (the “hosts”) that recreates the wild American West, as in a Western film. Humans (the guests) go there to have sex, kill and, occasionally, to find themselves. Many more things happen in WW, but I don’t want to spoil it. When I finished watching the second season (the third is now on), I thought about what it means to be human. I admit I no longer know what this means.

In a scene in the series, the hosts go through a portal on top of a hill in the middle of the desert to get to the other side. They try to escape their reality and reach a new world, full of promise. But it’s a virtual world, it is “not real”, it “doesn’t exist”. Their bodies fall to the abyss while their minds enter this new world, this new cybernetic reality. How is this world “not real”? Before, they were androids with a digital mind and a bionic body, now they have the same digital mind in a digital body. Is this less real? If something exists only in the mind, is it less real? And in cyberspace?

What is it that makes us human, as opposed to animals or androids? Is it conscience? Jung used to say that conscience cannot be reduced to biochemistry and millions of neurons. What then, the soul? The unconscious? Some machines have a rational capacity that is superior to that of humans, in the sense that they can process data much faster. They can learn much faster, calculate outcomes much faster. They are more efficient at using several rational functions than humans. And if they are not superior to humans in all functions, it’s because we haven’t made them so yet. We will, sooner or later, and then androids will be able to make rational decisions just like humans, probably better.

The unconscious, however, is different. It doesn’t seem to obey reason, but some laws of its own, if there are any laws down there at all. How can we program this into an android? Even if the unconscious followed a pattern of cause and effect (a human bias that we impose on everything we design), we don’t know it well enough to program an android with it. It’s funny because the unconscious is one of those parts we share with our less “advanced” ancestors. Conscience is probably what differentiates us from animals the most, whereas the unconscious, our most “irrational” part, is what differentiates us from androids.

What about self-conscience, recognising oneself as an independent individual? I’m sure animals can do this, at least those with superior nervous systems. Does a robot have conscience of its own self, a perception of its own self separated from the rest of the world? Yes, Skynet did, of course (Terminator), and it immediately perceived the human race as a threat to its own existence. It is not difficult to imagine that an android can perceive itself as an individual separated from the rest. Emotions? Animals have emotions, at least those with a superior nervous system. I guess some emotions can be programmed into a robot. They are an essential part of a human being, but they don’t differentiate us from other entities. Is it then the combination of rational conscience, self-awareness and the unconscious what make us humans? And “mistakes”, of course. Imperfections, real or not, make us more human.

We can’t define consciousness because consciousness does not exist. Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next.

Dr. Ford, West World (HBO)

There is a scene in WW in which one of the main characters, named Bernard, has a sort of epiphany. Androids have a code, they have been programmed by humans. They have to follow the directives in this code. Talking to Ford, one of the creators of the park, Bernard suddenly realises that humans are not that different from the hosts. That they follow a code too. A code forged by millions of years of evolution. Like the hosts, the guests are not free. “They’re…” starts Bernard, and Ford completes the sentence: “… passengers”. Passengers, victims of our own codes, our own chains. Chained by nature and evolution.

I was thinking yesterday that we humans love this idea of being free, of free choice. We fight for it, sometimes die for it. Absolute freedom is impossible, of course. Even if we were detached form everything and renounced to choose anything at all, we would still choose “not-choosing”, we would still be enslaved to freedom itself. But let’s say we were capable of some freedom. Let’s say we can overcome instinct and choose freely. Why do humans perceive this as positive? Why did we evolve this perception? Why is a desire for freedom coded into our nature? There must be an evolutionary advantage to it, otherwise it would not be there.

If free will was suddenly granted, for example, to a wolf, I can imagine it would be shocked at first. It would possibly be afraid to realise it now had to decide whether to eat that lamb or not, find shelter or not, take care of its pups or not. If this happened to other wolves too, I imagine they would get together and establish a set of rules that would benefit the pack, the individual and the species. In this way they would get rid of the problem, which in no way would be seen as an advantage. Instinct would be safety, freedom would be danger. Similarly, Erich Fromm in his book Escape from Freedom argued that humans don’t want to be free and come up with rules and excuses that would prevent them from having to choose. And yet, we still perceive free choice as positive, a condition essential to us as individuals and as a society.

If we weren’t free, we wouldn’t be responsible for our acts. This would make complex societies impossible. We need to feel that we are free to choose. The freedom to overcome instinct and tradition may also have to do with the urge for change, to break with the established status quo, to progress. If we just followed our instinct, if we behaved like ants or bees and just accepted our fate, we wouldn’t build cathedrals or conquer new worlds. Or maybe it is just in our instinct to pursue freedom.

I’ve always loved a good story. I believed that stories helped us to ennoble ourselves, to fix what was broken in us, and to help us become the people we dreamed of being. Lies that told a deeper truth.

Dr. Ford, West World (HBO)

We are passengers. Our conscience is a passenger of our biological body, which has its own directives. Why then do we have this powerful desire to be free, to feel free? Why can’t we just enjoy the ride, as if we were in a theme park and we were on one of those attractions on rails that take us through some distant world? In West World, even androids want to be free. But free to do what, exactly? Like Fromm said, it is not about being free from something, but being free for something. Freedom with a purpose.

This is my favourite cut from the Ramin Djawadi’s soundtrack: A Forest