Who Tells Us About The Future of AI? Technologists or Storytellers

Mahan Mehrvarz
5 min readApr 23, 2020

Caution: There are some spoilers about HBO TV series Westworld S03e03 in this story.

I usually don’t spend lots of time watching TV series. However, some are worth watching. One of which is another successful HBO series: Westworld. It is created by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan. In this short story, I want to draw a connection between technological improvements and the long path of storytelling backing them from years before. For this purpose, I decided to start from one of the greatest stories of today about AI.

In one inspiring episode of the series (S03E03), Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is describing a system called Rehoboam to Caleb Nickols (Aaron Paul). After she brings Caleb to the location of his worst memory of life and informs him about every single detail of it being recorded to the Rehoboam’s database, Dolores tells him that Rehoboam has been recording every single event of everybody’s life including choices, decisions, purchases, behaviors, etc. to make “a mirror world of this world”. And she emphasizes that this is not to record everything about everyone. Instead, it is about who the system lets people become. Their conversation goes on to the point that Dolores shows Caleb’s profile to himself and explains that a “predictive algorithm” concludes that Caleb will commit a suicide in 10 to 12 years. The dialogue hits more when Dolores mentions that this prediction is available to almost every recruitment company and is probably the reason behind Caleb’s failure in finding a decent job.

“They won’t invest in someone who is gonna kill himself. But by not investing, they ensure the outcome.”

Video Snapshot of HBO “West World” series (S03E03)

Our general reactions to sci-fi stories are mixed by some levels of ignorance. People normally call them only stories. However, I don’t believe it is the case in all circumstances. Storytellers have been constructing the societies’ desires in many instances throughout history. One of the greatest examples is the story of human to land on the moon back in 1969. If one dig a little bit more into the history of storytelling, they will find this desire being transformed from one to the next generation starting from 1865. And this date is the right date only if we neglect any oral history and undocumented attempt to tell the story of this travel beforehand.

In 1865, Jules Verne’s authored his significant novel From the Earth to the Moon”. later on, in 1902, the French director Georges Méliès, produced “A trip to the moon” (Le Voyage dans la Lune), telling more or less the same story. In 1953, when this story was already familiar for almost everyone in the planet earth, Hergé put moon landing in his comic series Explorers on the Moon” (On a marché sur la Lune) and used it as a theme for the seventeenth volume of The Adventures of Tintin”. The last step though, is the real story of two Americans landing on the moon in 1969.

After almost a century of storytelling and sharing one big dream, the 400,000 employers of Apollo program and 20,000 other third party organization, finally made a dream come true. All of them were great scientists, engineers, and technologists and neither of them was a storyteller. But those engineers had this desire woven into their fabric of their minds from a century ago (probably from their parents’ and grandparents’ night-time stories”, their comic books, or weekend movie theaters).

Now, who do you think tells us about the future? Jules Vern or Neil Armstrong?

Let’s get back to Rehoboam. Many might argue that it’s one of those other techno-phobic stories like “Ex-Machina”, “I, Robot”, or half of “Black Mirror” episodes. That might be the case about the amusement park (The West World Park) that the series borrows its name from. But not the system introducing in the third season: Rehoboam.

When President Trump started his “travel ban” back in 2016, Iranians were hurt the most. Unofficial data shows that Iranians with an equal level of education are getting fewer job interviews when applying for H-1B (the program which allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations). In fact, no employer needs to have access to Rehoboam to know that as long as President Trump is running the country, picking some candidates from any given country except the four blacklisted one would be a much safer option for their company. Who will invest in somebody that might be kicked out of the country by another similar legislation?

“And by not investing they ensure the outcome…”.

Photo from CNN (link)

Iranians among the citizen of other blacklisted countries are now less likely to receive a H-1B visa. This is not due to any legal prohibition. But this is based on the fact that their future (in the USA) is significantly unstable. Clearly, no business owner will invest in instability.
This is only one specific case though, there are other familiar cases such as African-American community, Hispanics, and other marginalized groups being trapped in a similar loop. No one invests on them cause their projections are unstable and they remain unstable because no one invest on them. To my view, we already have started Rehoboam. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy remind me more of Hergé than Verne.

No one invests on them cause their projection is unstable and they remain unstable because no one invests on them.

There are various discourses about the future of AI and most of them are built upon the concept of AI solutionism. A great deal of funding is spent on things like driver-less cars, quantum computers, and other relatively favorable technologies. One day they may come true in their perfect form. However, the future of AI like the future of almost everything else is what storytellers embed in human societies, not what excites technologists the most.



Mahan Mehrvarz

Product Designer & Strategist | MArch in Situated Technologies