If you’ve been watching Westworld , at some point you’ve probably found yourself wondering how close we are in reality to the science fiction of an immersive theme park populated by robots near indistinguishable from humans, whose bodies are there to cater to guests’ every perverse pleasure. Over the course of its first few episodes, the future presented by the show manages to simultaneously feel impossibly far away, yet only just out of reach.
So what’s the reality when it comes to our ability to develop ultra-lifelike robots that can carry on a conversation, down a shot of whiskey, bleed when shot or stabbed, and, of course, fuck?
(Warning: Spoilers below!)
What makes a host robot
First things first: What are those Westworld caliber machines, anyway? Though the show’s been somewhat vague about how the park builds its hosts (aside from that weird rotating wheel in a vat of white paint), we do know a few things about these bots.
For starters, they’re all powered by highly advanced AIs that enable them not just to run through a preprogrammed script, but to interact with guests—assessing the situation and reacting to new information, adapting their storylines and responses as needed on the fly.
The hosts seem to have some sort of skeletal underpinning, yet one that’s flexible enough to allow for smooth, humanlike movements and facial expressions. We’re already seeing many robots being made that can mimic both human bipedal walking and facial expressions , so making this part work should actually be one of the easier aspects (relatively).
We also know that Westworld hosts don’t just look like humans; they’re actually made of organic material. Though it’s still unclear what makes up a Westworld host’s innards, we do know they’re capable of getting bacterial infections (episode two notes Maeve has a MRSA infection). Since they bleed when cut (and engage in a number of other human activities), it’s reasonable to assume there are at least a few humanlike systems going on under the skin.
To learn more about the process of artificially creating organic systems, I reached out to Amy Karle , a bio-artist whose work explores the boundaries between technology and humanity. Her recent work includes Regenerative Reliquary, a bio-printed scaffold seeded with stem cells that, over time, will theoretically grow into a human hand—exactly the kind of tech that might one day give us robots with Dolores’s flawless complexion.
Robot skin and guts
Karle opened our conversation with some good news. It turns out that skin itself is easy to grow, something that Karle—who was born missing the skin on the top of her head, and has received a number of skin grafts over the course of her life—is intimately familiar with.
For robots, you wouldn’t need actual skin. You’d be able to get away with a skin-like substance, perhaps some blend of collagen and synthetic fibers, that mimics the warmth and texture and general experience of human skin. In addition to feeling like human skin, it’d also have the ability to feel like human skin (i.e. respond to pressure and touch, as with this recent development in artificial skin tech). Even better, that pseudoskin could improve on nature with added durability or improved healing capabilities—a must given how quickly
Westworld hosts return to action after being shot, stabbed, and otherwise mutilated.
But there’s a catch. While growing skin is a straightforward prospect, keeping it alive is a much more complex endeavor. You can’t just slap skin cells on a metal skeleton and call it a day. There’s an entire network of complex systems involved in feeding those cells the nutrients they need to stay alive—complex systems that also underpin some of the other essential aspects of the Westworld host experience, like eating and drinking and bleeding when injured.