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Amanda Sopkin
Amanda Sopkin

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Westworld Debugged

Westworld is a confusing show on many levels--the practical, the supernatural, the logistical, and definitely the technical. If you are anything like me, you struggled to piece together the complicated timelines, replayed scenes to hear the dodgy scientific explanations a second time, looked up reddit threads to make sense of everything, and attempted to separate the show’s occasionally wobbly writing from intentional mysteries that are meant to be explained later. Let’s look at some of the technical concepts on Westworld and examine their validity. Warning: There are many spoilers ahead for both season 1 and 2!

What are reveries?

The idea of “reveries” was introduced early in the first season of Westworld. Maeve ends up in a field lab where she is apparently going crazy. Bernard checks his handy dandy tablet and finds that she is undergoing “Heavy Fragmentation.” Ford clicks and drops a file that says “Music” at the top with a subfile named “Reverie - Debussy.” This seems to fix Maeve’s mental break and he calmly explains “An old trick from an old friend” before wiping her memory.

Reverie - Debussy
Reverie - Debussy

The reverie code was written 30 years before season one of Westworld, when Arnold was still alive. The “reveries” are vague memories of previous experiences that give the hosts more depth. For example, Maeve remembers her previous life with her child. Initially intended as an innocent measure to make the hosts seem more realistic, the reverie update seems to spiral out of control and is the primary justification for the “quirks” that soon start to look more and more like consciousness.

Showrunner Lisa Joy explains reveries: “They are past incarnations of their characters that are stored but the hosts just don’t have access to them - or aren’t supposed to have access to them...for me it was imagining that consciousness and history are a deep sea and reveries are tiny fish hooks that you dip into it and get little gestures and subconscious ticks. The hosts don't consciously know where they're drawn from, but they're just there to add some nuance to their expressions and gestures. But dipping that fishhook in might prove to be a little...fraught.” The reveries cause some memories to remain stored after resets. It is implied that the reveries were created to give the characters more complexity, and they do seem to have that effect. For example, a young William is entranced by Dolores’ depth partly because of her troubled nature and apparent awareness of past lives.

Although Arnold wrote the reverie code, confusingly, the problems start to appear later on after Arnold is long gone after an update in the episode called “The Original.” All at once, Abernathy, Dolores, and Maeve are unable to escape repeating memories of their previous lives. Why does this happen 30 years after reveries were created? It is implied that the update was initialized by Ford’s change to Maeve’s code. It is not explained directly, so we can only guess. In this thread it is suggested that the update is triggered by Dolores saying “These violent delights have violent ends” at the end of Season 1 episode 2.

"These violent delights have violent ends."
“These violent delights have violent ends.”

So how crazy is this concept? Certainly, having vague unexplainable memories would drive most human beings crazy, so Maeve and Dolores’ frustration is completely natural. But there’s a bigger, more complicated piece missing here. If the guests are just blindly following code instructions, why do they care that they can “remember” these things? Westworld’s hosts are on another level compared to any artificially intelligent technology that we have today, but the reverie explanation as the key to the unraveling of the Westworld facade feels unsatisfying. Let’s take a closer lokok.

It is said that the memories the hosts experience are more visceral than the memories a human being might have. The hosts have perfect memory, so they relive past events rather than having merely a fuzzy recollection like you or I might. If the hosts are incredibly intelligent computer programs like the kind we are familiar with today, they follow instructions based on the characters that have been written for them. It makes sense that a host might be unsure of how to react to the memories they relive, but the emotions they experience (sadness, confusion, anger) are another thing.

Dolores and Maeve are not just breaking down because they are not sure which instruction to follow, they are feeling things. Or at least appearing to feel things. As the hosts train and retrain on the new narrative loops they get closer and closer (or at least appear to get closer and closer) to human consciousness. Seeing this happen nearly overnight for Maeve and Dolores after the reverie update is initiated is jarring. But then, what fun would a tv show be if we had to see all of the incremental jumps towards consciousness in between point A and point B?

What is the maze and how does it relate to consciousness?

Arnold wrote code to make the hosts hear his voice and receive direction from it--a concept referred to as “the bicameral mind.” He programmed hosts to hear his own voice and receive direction from it, but the plan backfired when hosts were unable to handle it. Hosts that achieve a closer version of sentience, like Dolores, instead hear their own thoughts and not Arnold’s.

The maze is a partly physical, partly supernatural journey towards consciousness for the hosts. It started with Ghost Nation. Many of the members of Ghost Nation have been aware of their consciousness on some level for many years. Some of their children carry dolls that look like the surgeons that fix hosts back in the base.

Toys 'R' Us Westworld Edition
Toys ‘R’ Us Westworld Edition

Maeve sees one of these dolls when a young girl drops it and is told that it is a part of the “so-called religion” of Ghost Nation by a soldier. Hector explains that the doll is a shade, a part of Ghost Nation lore. He says that the doll represents "The man who walks between worlds. They were sent from hell to oversee our world. The Dreamwalker said there were some who could see them. That it's a blessing from God, to see the masters who pull your strings." Seems like Ghost Nation had it all figured out.

Ghost Nation leader Akecheta gains consciousness early on--before even Maeve and Dolores. The circular maze with a person at the center is a symbol that represents the journey towards consciousness. As Arnold tells Dolores: “Consciousness isn't a journey upward, but a journey inward. Not a pyramid, but a maze.”

The man in black believes that the maze is a super fun game that was created just for him, but the reality is much larger. The maze is a symbol passed down by members of Ghost Nation by engraving it onto each others’ scalps as a way of entering them into a sort of gang of those who have reached consciousness.

How did the lab techs miss this when cutting open hosts every night? Unclear.

How does artificial intelligence affect humans?

As the hosts become more advanced, they struggle with their own journeys towards consciousness, and separately, towards free will. For some of the hosts, like Dolores, it remains unclear whether they are indeed freely making decisions to shape their destinies or instead, conscious, but following their own encoding.

While AI experts are in agreement that we remain a long way away from machines that are able to function at the level of the hosts on Westworld, the series raises ethical questions about how humans relate to their artificially intelligent counterparts. Associate Professor of Computer Science Mark Riedl at Georgia Institute of Technology says "We are hardwired to treat living things as human, so when [machines] are designed to act autonomously it triggers feelings." He provides the example of Roombas, which some owners affectionately name and even mourn after their passing.

Westworld Season 3: Attack of the Roombas
Westworld Season 3: Attack of the Roombas

Although many Westworld participants callously kill and mistreat the Westworld hosts with no second thought, it is clear that many people would have difficulty seeing them as separate. Indeed, William struggles with this concept with Dolores throughout most of season one, until he experiences some kind of psychotic break after Dolores gets stabbed by Logan. What is stranger is that characters like Logan seem to find it odd that their human counterparts empathize with the robots at all. It doesn't creep you out a little to shoot little girls at random? William is no bouquet of roses himself, but Logan clearly has some issues to unpack.

Are humans really only 10,000 lines of code?

In the finale of season 2 it is said that the Westworld higher-ups had difficulty replicating human consciousness not because it was too complex, but because it was too simple. The person giving the library tour indicates that humans can effectively be reduced to 10,000 lines of code.

On a related note, Dolores mentions that it took 11,000 tries to perfect Arnold to create Bernard. She mentions that this is because the original versions were “too perfect.” This might seem like a lot of work for a “simple” task, but for a typical machine learning problem, it’s actually not too bad. The amount of data required for training a model of course depends heavily on the complexity of the problem. For an extremely complex problem, you’re going to need millions of examples. For a mid-sized problem, you would generally need hundreds of thousands. But if we are to believe that humans are actually incredibly simple, maybe this 11,000 number supports that idea.

Just some light reading
Just some light reading

So what about the lines of code? Brian Kurzweil estimated in Wired that a human brain is equivalent to 1 million lines of code. Google chrome runs on 6.7 million lines of code, Photoshop on 10 million. But these metrics may be unsuitable. As pointed out on this thread, the Westworld engineers might be using a futuristic language that allows them to develop at a higher level. The lines of code measure is referenced to underline the simplicity of human beings, but this metric might be useless in our current terms because the languages this future generation uses may be more advanced than current programming utilities.

It also might not be that useful in general. If the code was written poorly, or had more comments, or had a lot of deprecated functionality it would be arbitrarily more lines. Perhaps a better metric is that it is estimated that human DNA take up 6GB of information.

How does Maeve control the other hosts?

In season 2 Maeve taps into what is popularly called the mesh network to be able to communicate with other hosts and even control them. This is one of the more plausible phenomena on the show. She uses host brains throughout Westworld (theoretically both alive and dead) to send instructions throughout the network. Analogous complications have occurred through similarly sloppy network controls in IoT technologies today. IoT devices are growing at a lightning fast pace. There are hundreds of millions throughout the households of American consumers today. These devices are rarely secured and often make an easy entry point into home networks for hackers. Obviously this is even more dangerous in a universe like Westworld where unsecured IoT devices are implanted into partly-conscious occasionally blood-thirsty robots.

How do the guns work?

In the 1973 film Westworld the guns do not fire when pointed at humans, but this was not sufficient for the folks behind the 2018 reboot series.

The guns in Westworld seem to use some kind of technology that allows them to sense the identity of the target and accordingly either fire or blow some kind of annoying dust. Westworld producer Jonathan Nolan has said that the ability to sense is in the bullets themselves.

Come on, make my day
Come on, make my day

According to Richard Lewis, director of the season-two premiere in an interview with Entertainment Weekly: "There's a safety mechanism that's locked in when it’s on a human that it creates a different [velocity] for the bullet," Richard told EW. "They do slow down and create more of a bruise effect."

Indeed, guns do not have a deadly impact on guests in the first part of the first season. For example, in the premiere of the series the Man in Black is unaffected by Teddy’s bullets. However, in the season 1 finale Charlotte is horrified to discover that the guns seem to be killing real people. She asks Bernard: “What about the ******* guns?” to which he replies “Ford must have altered the system, coded it to read all of us as hosts.”

At a 2016 TCA panel Nolan revealed that “It’s not the guns,” Nolan said. “It’s the bullets. We thought a lot about this. In the original film, the guns won’t operate guest on guest, but we felt like the guests would want to have a more visceral experience here. So when they’re shot it has sort of the impact. They’re called simunitions. The U.S. military trains with rounds like the ones we’re talking about. But there’s a bit of an impact, a bit of a sting. So it’s not entirely consequence-free for the guests.”

There seem to be additional restrictions on the bullets. For example, when Dolores attempts to shoot a gun with Teddy in episode 3 she is unable to do so. As explained in this piece by Thrillist, Stubbs also is able to force bandits’ firearms to jam to stop their fire.

So just how realistic is this explanation? The bullets seem to be able to “see” the target and then “decide” whether or not to kill them or give them a little bruise. Does this happen when the trigger gets pulled? A bullet that was shot to kill would have too much force to adjust mid air, so what is going to happen if a guest jumps in front of a host? William can’t have been the first loved up human to unwittingly fall for a guest and try to prevent their death. Unless the bullets are self-contained autonomous systems, they wouldn’t be able to deflect after already being fired. Better hope those robots have good aim! But who knows, in the magical future world of Westworld where world class surgeons are considered cheap labor and forced to stitch perfect physical models of human beings back together every single night, maybe tiny autonomous bullets are a dime a dozen.

The security details, like Stubbs, carry real guns as a precaution. As for other weapons, there are no safeguards. Weapons like knives and ropes are used against guests in season 2 once the code preventing them from killing humans is removed. This raises some questions--what prevents accidents in the park? Do people die from falling off those deadly looking canyon walls? Seems like a legal nightmare.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission the number of people treated in hospital emergency rooms for theme park related injuries has shot up by 35% since 1993. If this trend keeps going until Westworld in 2052, maybe the number of injuries that would take place in this park is really not that crazy after all.

How does Abernathy’s decryption key work?

Abernathy is gifted with precious data that Charlotte O’Hale needs out of the park in season one. (Why did they pick a host that used to be a psychotic killer and recently broke down to hold their precious data?) At differing times it is suggested that he contains the data itself and also declared that he only contains the decryption key. In all the ruckus of the season two finale, Abernathy somehow escapes with the rest of the creepy hosts in the underground mall. (Why did they carefully station decommissioned hosts in a dark level of their weird mall posed for attack? Clearly it was the only option.) Minutes before his recapture by Charlotte O’Hale in season two, Bernard appears to download the key from Abernathy’s mind himself, giving himself the ability to decrypt the data in the forge. In the finale Abernathy’s control unit is used to gain access to the data in the forge, seemingly via his unique key.

The key is referenced as a “one-time key” meaning not that it can only be used one time, but that it can only decrypt a specific set of data. This explains Bernard’s ability to access the forge a second time by using the downloaded key.

What is the valley beyond?

In the finale of season 2 we are introduced to the concept of a perfect world created by Arnold for the hosts to live out their lives in peace. It exists only on a virtual level.

The valley beyond was originally designed for the consciousness of humans like Delos, who have attempted to reach immortality in a robotic version of themselves. It was intended to be a sort of Margaritaville for these old rich guys to live out their days.

In the season two finale, the hosts take the valley for themselves, entering it by “jumping” and forsaking their physical figures. Later on, the hosts bodies are found to be “wiped” which confirms the notion of transfer of data to the valley. It is theorized that the hosts will live happily in the valley.

Thanks for exploring some of the show’s mysteries with me. What are your questions about Westworld?

The End

Top comments (4)

nektro profile image
Meghan (she/her)

Loved your post! As for the show I’m always enthralled at what they throw at us but from my CS point of view it always brings me back to a question that idk if humans want the answer to. As mentioned, the journey of the hosts discovering consciousness is a big theme in the show. It never says this directly but what the hosts prove is that if is even possible to make a host that is 100% indistinguishable from a human guest then it proves that free will is a lie. We see evidence of this when Bernard is talking with Maeve underground in storage.

Regardless of the answer I think believing in free will gives a lot of people agency and responsibility over their actions that i think we’d lose if humankind ever succeeded in creating a general artificial intelligence.

amandasopkin profile image
Amanda Sopkin

I totally agree! Scary to think about.

fyodorio profile image

Thanks a lot Amanda! I love the series, and I had a great time reading your post! I think this research can be deepened even further 🧐👍

amandasopkin profile image
Amanda Sopkin

Thanks Fyodor! Yes, there are almost never-ending questions about Westworld worth exploring :)