The Ford Factor: Mad scientists and corporate villains

The following may contain some spoilers up to Episode 5 of Westworld.

anthony_hopkins_as_dr-_robert_ford_-_credit_john_p-_johnson_hbo_-_h_2016SO HBO’s Westworld (on Sky Atlantic here in the UK) is progressing nicely, though even now at five episodes in it’s probably still a little too early to start speculating about what is going on exactly. However, at the risk of casting wild speculations that hindsight later proves naive, one character that is particularly interesting me and the Twittersphere is Anthony Hopkin’s Dr. Robert Ford.

I mentioned in my last post on Westworld that Ford’s name is meant to make audiences recall Henry Ford, the twentieth century industrialist and whose name has become synonymous with automated mass production and consumerism. Though Ford did not invent the assembly line, his implementation of the industrial mode of production conjures images of the sort of alienated labour that has been held responsible for the dehumanisation of human beings since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

But Henry Ford can also be regarded as a cousin of a particular kind of character we’ve seen repeatedly in fiction and film over the centuries (specifically, the centuries since Western thinkers started exhibiting anxiety about the effects of how we make things – industrialisation – and the accompanying way of thinking – rationalism). Frankenstein, as I’ve said before, is the grandfather; Faust is perhaps the older, more distant relative; Prometheus is their icon.

We’ve come to think of these figures as the archetypical mad scientist: the unhinged narcissist, a victim of his own hubris, who is simultaneously uses the clarity of science and rationalism on the one hand and maniacal passion on the other. The mad scientist desires to stand with the gods, to create new life, but inevitably builds a monster that will break free of its creator’s control and return to destroy him and everything he holds dear. [I’ve used the male pronoun intentionally for the mad scientist, because they are invariably male. I would LOVE if anyone could provide an example of female mad scientist. Comment below, please.]


Rotwang, from Lang’s Metropolis (1927)

Though Frankenstein is probably the best known of these mad scientists, his monster was biological, not mechanical. But from the very first stories about robots, mad scientists have been portrayed as the crazed geniuses that unleash their creations upon the world. Rotwang, of Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis created a new template who can count amongst his descendents, including Dr. Edward Morbius, Dr. Eldon Tyrell and  Nathan Bateman.

But as those last two examples demonstrate, the mad scientist has undergone something of a transformation of late. And we can give some credit for this to none other than Isaac Asimov. Asimov, as we know from his writings – and from his short essay on ‘The Frankenstein Complex’ – was very against this persistent of archetypes of robotic monsters; he was also very unhappy with the portrayal of roboticists as the mad scientist, and sought normalise the job so that the public would regard roboticists as just ordinary people with ordinary occupations. Asimov’s robot stories are devoid of villains; the they are populated with scientists, engineers, ‘robot psychologists’ all simply going about their business, trying to fix robots that have gone awry. And the robots in Asimov’s stories are shown to be simply ‘malfunctioning’; they are not acting out of any malice caused by newly achieved self-awareness and a subsequent desire to sadistically destroy the human race. Asimov’s robots simply have problems in their programming, problems that have rational explanations and can be address using a similar application of reason.

Were all science fictions writers as committed to such lofty ideals. Asimov’s stories are unique because they are very different in terms of structure. These are not traditional stories of conflict, of good guys in white hats battling  black-clad evil-plotters. Some might argue that Asimov’s  stories, for all their noble intentions, lack something… excitement, maybe… without these usual elements. Regardless, most science fiction writers since, have been unable to resist the temptation to put villains and more traditional story-arcs back into their robot narratives.


No mad scientists here.

Now, post-Asimov, however, in a world full of scientists, we have come (more or less) to accept the nobility of science and those strange professors that practice those magical arts. The likes of Frankenstein and Rotwang seem to be in short supply – at least, we don’t have anyone more than ‘slightly eccentric’ at our Sheffield Robotics lab. And hardly anyone wears a long white coat. (There’s a lot of plaid, though.)


But in such a world, where does a sci-fi writer look when trying to imagine the Baddie? Where can writers find a suitable antagonist against whom the hero can do battle and audiences can fist-pump their relief when they are finally defeated?

The image we might have once had of the isolated, mad genius working (virtually) alone in a dungeon converted into a laboratory (a very intriguing transformation in its own right) no longer suffices for Tyrell and Bateman and their like. The modern scientists are much happier in clean, ultra-modern research facilities or skyscraper. These new scientists are not aided by a sole hunchback named ‘Igor’ but are rather backed by an entire corporate machine,  with boards of directors, capital, public relations teams and  (often) military contracts.

This transformation of the villain in robot-monster movies, from the individual mad scientist to the soulless, harmful corporation, represents an important shift in what we, as a society, fear, and the root of our anxieties.

What we seem to be seeing in Westworld – and remember, it is far too early to say with any certainty, so this is really not much more than an historically-informed fan-theory – is this shift from the mad scientist to the corporate villain being illustrated right before our eyes.

On the one hand, we have Dr. Ford. He’s old now, and has been at the park since its inception [See what I did there – ‘Inception’…?] . In fact, as he explains in Episode 3, he was there before the park opened, together with his partner, the mysterious ‘Arnold’. Both Ford and Arnold are presented as scientists cut of the ‘mad’ lab coat: it’s said that Ford is ‘chasing his demons over the deep-end’. Ford, echoing his forefather, Frankenstein, wistfully speculates that one day ‘We can …perhaps one day even resurrect the dead.’ When Abernathy says in Episode 1 that his ultimate goal is to ‘meet his maker’ he echoes many other famous monstrous creations, from the original Frankenstein’s creature to Roy Batty, Tyrell’s rouge android.

Harkening back even further, to the archetype’s Faustian roots, Ford says ‘You can’t play God without being acquainted with the devil’.  Ford explains to Bernard the nature of his art: ‘We practice witchcraft. We speak the right words, and we create life itself out of chaos’.

And so on. And of course Arnold looms over all of this, perhaps literally the deus ex machina, the god from/in the machine, may yet to overturn whatever agenda are being set and thwart whatever objectives others imagine Westworld realising.

But lurking behind Ford, behind Arnold, is this as-yet unidentified corporate agenda. As Theresa Cullen explains to the ambitious Sizemore: ‘This place is one thing for the guests, another thing to the shareholders and something completely different to management.’ (Do you ever feel that the names in Westworld might actually all be allegorical, in one way or another? It makes guessing what might happen next fun…).


Tyrell Corporation HQ – Blade Runner (1982)

Corporations are the perfect villain for movies about robots, especially in the twenty-first century. Mad scientists are too messy, too human. They are driven by demons and passions and hubris; they are much more suited to another age, to classical and Romantic tales. Frankenstein’s manor and dungeons, hunchback servants and the macabre use of dead bodies all reek of Gothic sensibilities. Corporations, on the other hand, are wonderfully rational. They are not ‘evil’ – they are completely emotionless, disinterested in the consequences for imperfect and insignificant lifeforms like human beings (or the environment). Like the robot monsters to which they give birth, they are motivated not by unconscious or animalistic impulses; what drives the corporation is nothing other than a completely predictable, rational goal: the accumulation of wealth. (As this picture suggests, though, we might not be entirely free of Gothic imagery just yet.)

If films about robot monsters are expressions of our anxiety that humans are becoming too much like machines and vice versa (see this paper I wrote for a slightly different version of this argument), then the corporation is the ideal villain into which we can project this anxiety. The corporation is like a networked machine, made up of many interrelated nodes; eliminating one of these cogs does not bring the machine to an end. It behaves like the Terminator, ruthlessly pursuing its single goal, with no consideration for collateral damage or the pettiness of things like human emotion, or life.

Furthermore, if human beings are becoming less human in our rational, (post-)industrial world, the the corporation not only represents this transformation but facilitates it. The corporation provides a legal framework and a moral justification for our dehumanisation. The ubiquity of corporations in our economic (social) life means that we are all subject to their influence, and are all in danger of being dehumanised in its machinations. The very foundations of human society become not based on human relations but relations between signs, or figures on a spreadsheet. Such structures mean that the role of individual decision-making is removed from the equation: human beings do not decide to ‘go black hat’ and be evil. But nevertheless, whatever decisions we make, we live a world less-human and less-humane, in spite of ourselves.  Just as demons once provided scapegoats for human immorality, we can absolve ourselves of responsibility for our dehumanisation with the knowledge that we, like the corporations and their machines, are pre-programmed by a system whose script we are unable to extricate ourselves.

It is still too early to tell if Westworld will actually go down this road, if it will continue to offer this post-Asimov twist. (The first series of Channel 4’s Humans also seemed to suggest that this might go in similar direction, so it will be interesting to compare how both or either deal with this issue.) It’s perhaps folly or even hubris at this point to speculate, such are the rich possibilities. I can’t wait to see how this develops, however, and who is revealed to be the ‘villain’ of Westworld, or if it will eschew any such traditional narrative structures.

Comments, thoughts and theories welcome!

The New Westworld: Dehumanising the human; humanising the machine


Note – the following blog tries to avoid the biggest spoilers, though to avoid any spoilers you would be best advised to watch Ep. 1 of Westworld before proceeding.

HBO’s latest offering (on SkyAtlantic here in the UK) is an update of Michael Crichton‘s 1973 film Westworld, this time brought to us as a ten-part television series by sci-fi re-booter extraordinaire J.J. Abrams and screenwriter Jonathan Nolan (yes, brother and frequent collaborator of Christopher) . The new Westworld comes with much hope (for HBO as a potential ‘new Game of Thrones’) and hype, understandably with the talent behind it having given us so much terrific science-fiction of late, including Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Interstellar.

As with Channel 4’s series Humans, broadcast last June (news on forthcoming series 2 here), Dreaming Robot’s offered a live twitter commentary while the show was being broadcast in the UK, and I’ll take some time afterwards to write some reflective pieces on what we see in the show. (The Twitter ‘Superguide’ from @ShefRobotics can be seen here; my own @DreamingRobots Superguide can be seem here.)

Unsurprisingly, many of the themes in the Westworld reboot could also be seen in Humans. It seems, for example, that both shows express a certain anxiety, that as our machines become more human we humans seem to become less and and less human, or humane. But this isn’t a new idea original to either show – this anxiety as been around as long as robots themselves, from the very invention of the term robot in the 1920s. And if we trace the history of robots in science fiction, we see a history of monsters that reflect this same fear, time and again, in slightly different contexts. Because the robot – which, remember, was invented in the popular imagination long before they were built in labs – is above all else exactly that, a perfect way of expressing this fear.

shareable1So, what are we looking at in this new, improved Westworld? (because frankly, the original film lacked the depth of even the first hour of this series, being just a very traditional Frankenstein narrative and rough draft for Crichton’s Jurassic Park, made 20 years later). First – as this nifty graphic on the right illustrates – we do see the robots in Westworld becoming much more human. The programme starts with a voice asking the humanoid (very humanoid) robot, Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), ‘Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?’. The questioner is exploring whether Dolores have become sentient, that is, aware of her own existence. The echo here with Descartes is clear. We all know about cogito, ergo sum – I think, therefore I am. But Descartes proposition isn’t just about thinking, it is about doubt.  He begins with the proposition that the act of doubting itself means that we cannot doubt, at least, our existence . So we would better understand Descartes’s proposition as dubito, ergo cogito, ergo sum: I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am. If Dolores is found to be questioning the nature of her reality then that would be evidence for self-awareness and being, according to the Cartesian model.

The robots in Westworld are depicted as falling in love, maintaining strong family bonds, appreciating beauty, and considering the world in philosophical, reflective contexts. How much of this is merely programming and how much exceeds the limits imposed upon them by their human masters is the key question that the show will tease its audience with for a few weeks, I suspect, though certainly it occupies much of our attention in the first hours. But if these moments – described as ‘reveries’ – are in any way genuine moments of creativity, then this is another category, beyond the notion of the cogito, that we might say the robots are becoming ‘alive’.

For many thinkers in the second-half of the twentieth century (for example, the post-Freudian psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott), it is only in such moments of creativity, or enjoying pure moments of spontaneous being, that we truly discover the self and come alive. (The Freudian and post-Freudian influences on the narrative become even more apparent in subsequent episodes.) As response to late-industrial capitalism (and the shock of fascism to the human self-conception as a rational animal), this idea emerged of human beings coming ‘alive’ only when we are not acting compliantly, that is, when we are acting spontaneously, or creatively, and not according to the laws or dictates (or ‘programming’) of another individual, organisation or group consciousness; we see this trend not only in a post-Freudian psychotherapy (e.g. Eric Fromm and the Frankfurt SchoolR. D. Laing) and other philosophical writings but also in the popular post-war subculture media, including advertising – the sort being satirised in the ad for Westworld that opens the original film.

There are other perspectives that give us a glimpse into the robot’s moments of becoming human. Peter Abernathy, looking at a picture that offers a peek of the world outside, says, ‘I have a question, a question you’re not supposed to ask.’ This is an allusion to Adam and Eve and the fruit of forbidden knowledge, through which humankind came to self-awareness though a knowledge of the difference between right and wrong. (Peter, after this, is consumed with rage at how he and his daughter have been treated.) And like Walter, the robot that goes on a psychotic killing spree, pouring milk over his victims, Peter is determined to ‘go off script’ and reclaim for himself a degree of agency and self-determination, acting according to his own, new-found consciousness instead of according to what others have programmed for him.


MEANWHILE, the human beings (‘newcomers’) in Westworld seem less ‘humane’ than their robot counterparts. The newcomers are shown to be sadistic, misogynist, psychopathic in the indulgence of their fantasies. One could argue that this behaviour is morally justifiable in the unreal world designed solely for the benefit of paying customers – that a ‘rape’, for example, in Westworld isn’t really ‘rape’ if it is done to a robot (who, by definition, cannot give nor deny consent), but this clearly is not how the audience is being invited to see these actions.

That human beings are becoming more like machines is an anxiety for which there is a long history of evidence, and even pre-dates the cultural invention of robots in the 1920s. We can see this anxiety in the Romantic unease with the consequences of Enlightenment that gave birth to the the new, rational man, and of the industrial revolution, that was turning humans into nothing more than cogs in the steam-powered machines that so transformed the economy. This has been addressed in the Gothic tale of Frankenstein, still the basis for so many narratives involving robots, including the original Westworld film and, more recently, even our most contemporary stories such as Ex_Machina, and, to a lesser extent, in this manifestation of Westworld (which will be subject of a future post). (I have written and spoken on this theme myself many times, for example here and here).

So in Westworld we meet Dr. Ford – the mad-scientist who creates the machines that will, inevitably, be loosed upon the world. Dr. Ford immediately reminds us of another Ford, the man whose name is synonymous with the assembly lines and a mode of production in the late industrial revolution that has done so much to dehumanise modern workforces. We see these modes of production and workers in the iconic film, which was contemporary with Henry Ford’s factories, Metropolis. (Though, as we shall see, this Ford is rather more complex…).

This fear reflects, too, that as post-Enlightenment humans become more rational they become more like machines, acting in predictable, programmed ways, having lost the spontaneity and creativity of an earlier age. The humans of Westworld are exaggerations of the humans of our ‘Western’ world of rationalism, science and alienation. (We don’t have to agree with this Romantic notion, that rationalism and science are negative forces in our world, to accept that there is a great deal of anxiety about how rationalism and science are transforming individual human beings and our societies.)

Rational dehumanisation is something personified in the actions of the corporation, which has replaced the mad-scientist as the frequent villain of the sci-fi Frankenstein-robot-twist (again, more to come on this in a future post), and we see hints in Episode 1 of what is to follow in Westworld, along the lines of film’s such as 2013’s The Machine, where the slightly misguided and naive actions of a scientist are only made monstrous when appropriated by an thoroughly evil, inhumane military-industrial complex.

The this theme is address so succinctly in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, an important influence on the new Westworld, where the Tyrell Corporation boasts that their replicants are More Human Than Human. And in Blade Runner, too, we see humanoid robots behaving more humanely that the humans that ruthlessly, rationally hunt down the machines. It is unclear, however, from the Tyrell slogan whether the robots are more human than the human because the technology has become so sophisticated, or because humans have fallen so low.

On Westworld as a whole, it is too early to tell, of course, if it will maintain its initial promise and be as monumentally successful as Game of Thrones, or as iconic as Blade Runner. But already this first episode has given us much more to think about than the 1973 original, and undoubtedly both the successes and failures of the programme will be instructive.

Get ready for… ‘Humans’

Since we first got wind of the Swedish series Real Humans, we at Dreaming Robots have long been longing for the début of the UK version (though we’d still like to see the original sometime, I hope someone is listening…)

Wait no longer.

Humans gets its premier tomorrow night in the UK on Channel 4. And it looks as though it will live up to its promise, conveyed in a super-slick marketing campaign. (See the very-real looking ads, below, and the trailer, at the bottom.)

persona synthetics

Reviews will follow soon after. However, you can follow all the action live as a team from Sheffield Robotics (@ShefRobotics) will be tweeting live during the first episode, including our Director, Tony Prescott (@tonyjprescott) and, of course your very own @DreamingRobots. And more, to be sure. Follow us (link on the right) to keep up with all the action.

Watch the programme and follow #humans for commentary. We’re hoping for a great hour of television!