What is the legal status of Westworld’s “hosts”?

November 16, 2016

Pop Culture & the LawHBO’s new series Westworld has quickly generated a lot of excitement since premiering last month, and I must admit that I’m among those hooked.

For those unfamiliar with the program, Westworld, much like the 1973 film on which it is based, is premised on a western-themed amusement park populated by androids who are unaware of the true “nature of their reality” (with very limited, but quite significant, exception).

If you’re anything like me, while watching the program, you’ve regularly pondered the legal status of these androids, or “hosts” as they’re known within Westworld’s universe.

But before I get any further into discussing this topic, I need to plaster this warning across your screen because, man, oh, man, are there spoilers ahead if you aren’t completely caught up on the series.

spoiler-warning

Anyhow, where were we?  Ah yes, the hosts’ legal status.  Do they have any legal rights? Are they legally culpable for any actions they commit?

Naturally, within the confines of the park, they are almost completely regarded as simple animatronics, if not extraordinarily advanced ones.  In fact, most humans in Westworld refer to hosts using the gender-neutral pronoun “it,” revealing the view that the hosts are viewed as nothing more than objects to most humans.

This view and treatment of the hosts as mere objects comes in stark contrast to how the hosts are made to appear and act as human as possible.  For instance, we have seen a glimpse of how the hosts used to appear, with their insides looking quite mechanical – much as we would think a stereotypical android would appear.

The hosts as they currently appear in Westworld, by contrast, appear very human on the inside.  The viewer is allowed glimpses of how the hosts are created throughout the series so far, and they remarkably westworld-2resemble humans, in that they are built with a human skeleton and musculature (of unknown composition).  One human even remarks that this change in appearance from the mechanical to the organic was intentional to make the hosts even more convincing human replicas.

The drive to make hosts indistinguishable from human beings doesn’t end at physical appearance: they are constantly “upgraded” to make them think and act as closely to human as possible (within predefined limitations).  “Arnold” – the absent (and presumably deceased) co-creator of the hosts and the park itself – is alluded to have tried to instill true artificial intelligence into the hosts, a plotline that is still continuing to unfold as the series progresses (and thus, some hosts are very likely to achieve AI within a relatively short period of time).

What does all of this have to do with the hosts’ legal status?

It comes back to one of Westworld’s thematic questions and answers:

“Are you real?”

“If you can’t tell, does it matter?”

Indeed, if the hosts are indistinguishable from “true” human beings, are they considered “natural persons” under the law, with all of the attendant rights and burdens?

While that question is truly a complex one, I would venture to guess that the vast majority of you reading this instinctively answered “no.”  And I wouldn’t necessarily blame you for such an initial reaction.  After all, the hosts’ bodies were manufactured and their minds were programmed by human hands.  They remain, in the strictest sense, machines.

But under a broader definition, human beings are also “machines.”  In fact, Westworld goes out of its way to allude to the great similarities between the hosts’ programming and human behavior.  For example, the hosts are programmed to ignore anything that may cause internal confusion as to the “nature of their reality” – typically by responding that a disconcerting image “doesn’t look like anything.”

The human mind, likewise, has its own internal programming to deal with “cognitive dissonance” – that is, situations in which an individual is confronted with new information that throws his or her values or beliefs into question.  One of the more common methods of dealing with such dissonance is through “reduction:” ignoring or denying the new, conflicting information.

Sound a bit familiar?  If you’re completely caught up on the show, it should, since we saw a prominent dramatization of this dissonance and reduction in this past Sunday’s episode, specifically when Bernard discovered that he was a host.

westworld-1Of course, in that very same scene, host co-creator Dr. Ford explains Bernard’s inability to see disconcerting information: “They cannot see the things that will hurt them. I’ve spared them that.”

But is the line between “natural person” and “machine” as thin as “programmed by evolution” and “programmed by another being?”  After all, human cognitive dissonance and reduction “programming” operates in largely the same manner as Ford’s programming, with the most glaring difference being each programming’s origin.

Granted, the hosts’ dissonance reduction programming is far more simplistic than its human counterpart, but the growth currently being depicted on the part of two of the hosts (namely, Delores and Maeve) may result in at least one host’s mind being effectively indistinguishable from a “real” human being’s.  No outside control exerted; no confining programming that cannot be deviated from; complete awareness of the “true nature of his or her reality.”

If that were to come to pass, what would stand in the way of such a host being legally considered a natural person?

Again, I’m guessing that you’ve returned to the “origin” argument: that because the host was created by human hands and the human is a “natural person” in the literal sense, the host could never cross that threshold to legal personhood.

This argument creates at least two major problems, though; the first being that advances in technology will likely someday allow for the independent “creation” of a human – that is, one that is not grown in utero.  Would such an origin discount this individual from being considered a “natural person” under the law?

The second complication brings us back to one of Westworld’s primary themes: “If you can’t tell, does it matter?”

In other words, if human and host were coexisting side-by-side in the “real” world, and they were otherwise indistinguishable in appearance and in mind, how could such discrimination against hosts be justified?  Westworld goes out of its way to depict acts of violence against the hosts by the human “guests” quite negatively.

Would such discrimination – that is, the denial of any rights of legal personhood that allow such acts of violence – ever be tolerated in the real world?

Thankfully, we aren’t forced to consider this and similar questions just yet, since our era’s AI and robotics technology is nowhere near as advanced as that depicted in Westworld.  Still, the series’ fictional science isn’t quite as far off as we may think, and these issues surrounding AI and legal personhood may arise before we are fully comfortable.