The huge issues Westworld is raising about our future

Review: 'Westworld' keeps your interest
Review: 'Westworld' keeps your interest

The popular HBO show Westworld has helped bring artificial intelligence into the mainstream. On the show, human-like robots welcome guests to a Wild West-inspired amusement park.

But Westworld is more than just entertainment. It raises problems that society will have to face head-on as technology gets more powerful. Here are a couple of the biggest.

1. Can we treat robots with respect?

Westworld raises a moral question -- at what point do we have to treat machines in a responsible manner? We're used to dropping our smartphones on the ground without remorse and throwing our broken gadgets in the trash. We may have to think differently as machines show more human traits.

"Westworld isn't some campy sci-fi show, it seems real enough that you can talk about it with your parents or people who aren't in tech, and have a serious discussion as opposed to being like 'oh shiny robots' [and] just joke about them," said University of Maryland computer science professor John Dickerson.

Related: HBO pressed on violence on Westworld

He highlighted the characters William and the Man in Black. There's a popular fan theory that the show is unfolding at two different times, and the Man in Black is an older, jaded version of William. When William first arrives at the park, he treats the machines with great care and develops emotional ties with them. But as time passes, he begins to do horrible things to the robots.

"It's a really cool way to introduce things like, how is interacting with a host or Android over time going to affect you as a human," Dickerson said.

He pointed to the long-running debates over the impact of violent video games and movies on people. Technologies that loom in the future, like those depicted in Westworld, only heighten these concerns.

"We need to think hard about some of these issues," he said. "Even if you can destroy this thing, and you're not having any cost to human life or anything like that, it's going to have some effect on the greater society and you."

2. How many of us will still have jobs?

For Maryland computer science professor Hal Daume III, the most obvious question about artificial intelligence is the future of work. With the technology the show presents, a huge number of things we calls jobs could be automated and handled by machines. But Westworld hasn't addressed what life is like in the outside world. Do people have jobs and meaningful lives?

Related: Obama warns of the danger of AI wiping out jobs

"If the outside world were this utopia, like a Star Trek utopia, then it's not clear there'd be a huge market for hanging out in the Wild West and basically being horrible," Daume said.

It sounds like we might just have a promising storyline for season 2.

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