Creators of science fiction and fantasy books, films, and TV shows present stories of possible or imaginary worlds – and their presentations can range from the realistic to the fantastical. When we watch Westworld (and viewership is growing, with the season one finale drawing 2.2 million viewers), we look forward 30 years into a potential future envisioned by its writers. Returning to the notion of reality and fantasy (or fact and fiction), the extent to which a sci-fi film might be descriptive of the future seems to be anybody’s guess.
However, we can actually get a sense of how reasonable the picture of the future that is being presented to us is if we consider it in terms of its pieces – particularly the technologies it presents. To consider the feasibility of the fascinating tools and other inventions depicted in these currently fictitious scenarios is, in some manner, to look through a window into the future. In a more functional sense, considering the show’s technology allows us a way to understand it in a broader cultural and historical context (as well as to better understand the possible future developments of these technologies through a fictional example).
Here are five key technologies from Westworld that are not AI, along with a sense of how close we are to actually having these seemingly “space-age” technologies available.
1. Communicating with a satellite by laser – Possible today
Early in the first season, a host is found using a laser to establish a satellite uplink, which was used to send sensitive information out of the park. We are already able to use lasers to send information, similar to how optic fiber is used for communication. There are a couple of difficulties that arise in laser communication between the ground and space: atmospheric interference, and the maintenance of a stable connection between the point in orbit and the point on Earth. Despite the challenges, satellite communication by laser has already been achieved today.
A system on the International Space Station called Optical Payload for Lasercomm Science (OPALS) is demonstrating that it is possible to get reliable results when communicating between space and the ground and that this type of communication has practical benefits.
2. Variable velocity rounds/firearms – Possible 10+ years out
In the world of Westworld, the hosts’ guns can shoot people and impact them, perhaps knocking them over; but they do not seem to be able to kill humans, at least within the parameters of the park. The guns can kill the artificially intelligent hosts, though. From what is presented directly in the storyline, it is unclear exactly what it is about the firearms that allow them to impact the two different types of targets differently.
Fans of Westworld have come up with different theories on the technology that might be behind the gunfighting. One possibility is that the hosts are designed so that they self-damage whenever a bullet makes impact. It is also possible that the ammo could be variable-speed or variable-hardness.
To zone in on variable-speed bullets, this technology has already been put into practice today, although it is not yet safe and reliable enough to be deployed in a complex, lifelike scenario such as the landscape of Westworld. Beyond a gun simply being able to fire at different speeds, you would really also want to have “smart bullets” or “smart guns” – capable of detecting the type of target and adjusting speed to match – as an additional safeguard.
3. 3D printing synthetic muscle – Possible 20+ years out
You may have never thought seriously about the notion of printing out a human being. Nonetheless, it is becoming increasingly possible, at least in parts. Three-dimensional printed muscle has been produced at Columbia University that tested significantly stronger than human muscle. The synthetic muscle created by Columbia researchers could lift 1000 times its own weight and had a strain density that was 15 times that of human muscle.
While this muscle may be incredibly strong, it cannot move nearly as quickly as human muscle can. This real technology would need to be developed to a great degree to be similar to what we see in Westworld, in which the hosts are capable of exhibiting speed and movement that is on-par with humans.
4. Storing the equivalent of human brains – Potentially possible 50+ years out
One thing that can seem preposterous about a sci-fi technological scenario is simply data volume required for the storage of entire AI minds. It would be an intimidating engineering project to create a system that gives a similar storage capacity per host as would be needed for the information within a human brain.
Human brains are not computers of course, so there is no data capacity that can be directly measured. However, one estimate places the amount of information per synapse within the brain at 4.7 bits. That may not sound like much until you consider that the average human brain contains about 100 trillion synapses. That means that a fair estimate places the amount of information that is stored in the human brain at 470 trillion bits. That’s almost half a quadrillion bits, equivalent to 58.75 trillion bytes, i.e. 58.75 terabytes. (Currently, an infrastructure-as-a-service plan with high bandwidth might measure 1 terabyte.)
Today, there is not a hard drive available that can store that much data. You can purchase a server with 50 TB on it – a server that size could nearly store an AI person, based on the estimates above.
While that may seem reasonable, it is huge. If you use cloud hosting as the backup for a brain of that size and were uploading at 1 Gbps, it would take a week or more to complete a single backup.
Keep in mind that storage capacity is just the beginning of the challenge; we also need to unpack how the brain functions. Really getting a firm idea of how the brain works will take longer than it might seem because the brain is unlike a computer. We are still trying to determine exactly how the brain operates. It really is difficult to get an accurate idea of the brain’s capacity until its functionality is better understood.
5. Advanced biomechatronics – Potentially possible 50+ years out
The full capabilities of the host systems themselves – the blended organic and synthetic nature of their bodies – is something that will probably not be possible until more than half a century in the future. The hosts seem to be made up of a combination of 3D printed synthetic components and living tissue. In the first episode of season 1, Bernard is given access to a door via having his DNA read (indicating that he has DNA). Integration of biological and synthetic systems may feel like mad science, but the field covering this integration, biomechatronics, is expanding rapidly. For instance, frog legs have been put to bizarre use, with muscles taken from them to allow electronic fish to swim.
We may have frog-leg-driven electro-fish, but we are not yet capable of manufacturing synthetic androids that are covered with human flesh. There would be substantial challenges that we would need to overcome to construct the characters in Westworld, in other words.