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Disruptopia: How Close Is 'Westworld'?

03/11/2016 17:04
kimberrywood via Getty Images

We're living in the era of the Global Experience Economy where people are looking beyond a product or service and demanding experience. In J.J. Abrams' new HBO series, Westworld, we get a sensationalised look at what the future of this demand could become.

In the show, Westworld is a Deadwood-esque theme park where vacationers pay to enjoy a completely interactive and personalised experience in an immersive environment where consequences don't exist. Their counterparts to the adventures are artificially intelligent, 3D-printed humanoids, there to satisfy any fantasy, from falling in love, to murder and rape.

While this premise takes the Experience Economy to the extreme, how far off is it really?

Many people are already starting to live with an AI presence in their lives. The recent debut of the UK edition of Amazon Echo has created an undeniable buzz. What sets 'Alexa' apart from other voice-activated services like Siri, is that it can learn your preferences and routines, and start to anticipate your needs. There are concerns however that the Echo is 'always listening' and recording private conversations that get stored in the cloud, raising new questions over data, ownership and privacy.

'Amelia' by IP Soft, 'The Digital Labour Company', is a cognitive AI already transforming customer service. Much like industrial machines transformed agriculture and manufacturing, IP Soft believes that cognitive technologies will drive the next evolution of the global workforce, having more than a $7-trillion impact worldwide. It's Amelia's natural language skills that make her unique. Humans often don't speak in straight lines, which traditionally has been a challenge for AI, for instance Alexa sometimes struggles with accents and deciphering the question within long sentences. Amelia is also able to react to the subtle changes of people's emotions, altering her tone and language instantly to better communicate.

Researchers from the University of California San Diego and companies such as Organovo are leading the way in the development of fully functional, 3D printed human tissue. Printed tissue is mostly being used for pharmaceutical drug testing, but the ultimate goal is to produce whole human organs that can be transplanted into patients. Early tests transplanting 3D printed bone fragments into rats have proven successful, and besides humans receiving 3D printed organs, this could mean that humanoid robots may also be able to receive modified living organs, creating cyborgs in reverse.

Probably the closest we are already coming to seeing AI humanoids like those in Westworld is in the sex industry. Last year the sex doll industry made history releasing Roxxxy, a high-tech talking sex robot with customisable, multiple personalities, warm skin, and even a spurious heartbeat and circulatory system.

"We are building an AI system which can either be connected to a robotic doll," says Matt McMullen, CEO of RealDoll, "or experienced in a VR environment."

Reading that statement makes me think that Matt McMullen doesn't just know his industry, but he also understands his customers. People often like to test out experiences before they purchase, and virtual and mixed reality are giving brands more ways to give customers those opportunities. Volvo lets you test drive cars, Ikea lets you redesign your kitchen, and RealDoll lets you get to know and personalise a companion who has your same tastes, interests and sense of humour. They are betting that by building this relationship in a virtual world that many will want to experience it in the real world as well. There are also predictions that sex robot brothels will be booming within the next ten years.

Combine all these innovations and you can see that Westworld is not so much of a utopian or dystopian fantasy, it is a 'Disruptopia', born of science fiction, but completely achievable in reality. It's easy to wonder how many business plans are currently being written that aim to create next-level experiences through combining emerging technologies and the insatiable human desire to experience things more profoundly.

The only thing that stands out to me as unbelievable about Westworld is the lack of advertising and sponsorship throughout the theme park, unless we can assume that in the future people will actually pay money not to be advertised or sold to.

Anthony Hopkins' character questions the future of brand loyalty: "What is the point of it? Get a couple of cheap thrills, some surprises? It's not enough. It's not about giving the guests what you think they want. That's simple. The guests don't return for the obvious things we do. They come back for the subtleties, the details. They come back because they discover something they imagine no one has ever noticed before. Something they fall in love with. They're not looking for a story that tells them who they are. They already know who they are. They're here because they want a glimpse at who they could be."

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