Science Behind the Fiction: Westworld's intrusive memory recording and DNA sniffers

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Apr 24, 2018, 1:01 PM EDT (Updated)

After a 17-month hiatus, HBO's Westworld is back. While the season one finale provided some much-desired answers (Who is the Man in Black? Who is Wyatt? What's Ford's new narrative?) the beginning of Season 2 doubles down on the mysteries.

This article contains spoilers for Westworld Seasons 1 and 2.

Westworld's Season 2 premiere, "Journey Into Night," picks up where Season 1 left off, in the aftermath of a massacre at the hands of the hosts, recently freed from their programmed shackles and led by Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood). But why is Delos gathering guest experiences and DNA? Where exactly is Westworld located? How many parks are there? What is Dolores' plan, aside from killing everyone, human and robot, she can get her hands on?

Along with the narrative mysteries came a whole host (Ha!) of glimpses at new tech. There was the immediately iconic and creepy primal drone host, with its blank canvas body and face, mindlessly doing the work of the nefarious Delos corporation.

Let's take a look at a few of the gadgets and gizmos on display and see what real-world equivalents we have to play with.

DNA Sniffers

In the immediate aftermath of Dolores' guest hunt, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) finds himself attached to Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson) and a few other guests as they hide from the hosts in the hopes of saving their own skin. After most of the group is waylaid by marauders while in search of a safe haven, Bernard and Charlotte make their way to a secret outpost. Once inside, Charlotte instructs Bernard to place his hand on a sensor that will take a sample of his DNA for sniffers that will, henceforth, know him as non-threatening.

Bernard shortly comes into contact with the faceless drone host, an uncanny mechanical Jeeves carrying out tasks for Delos. Bernard stands in its path and the host faces him, unmoving. The lack of any discernable expression implies a sort of inherent malice, rendering the drone host innately horrifying. But Charlotte assures Bernard it has sniffed his DNA, confirmed he is no threat, and simply wants him to move aside.

Do such technologies exist? Sort of. Smell is one of the most powerful senses in terms of memory. The information present in a scent is better at triggering memories and a sense of traveling backward in time than any other sensory information. Even smells we don't often encounter can trigger memories decades old. So it stands to reason that same information would be useful from a technological standpoint.

E-noses, as they've come to be called, have existed for some time; they've even been used as a tool on the International Space Station to detect leaks of potentially toxic gases. These sniffers are being developed for various reasons including detecting cancers and diseases in tree populations.

A team at Stanford has even developed a sniffer that uses DNA molecules to detect specific scents. By attaching fluorescent compounds onto DNA molecules, they can detect anything from spoiled milk to explosives. The fluorescent compounds respond when they come into contact with specific substances.

There has been some conversation about deploying these technologies in high-security situations, such as airports, to detect potentially harmful substances. They could be deployed in tandem with traditional security protocols as an additional safety measure. Currently, dogs are used to sniff out specific substances, but technology may soon replace them.

Artificial Skin

The hosts within Westworld are effective because they so easily pass as human. This is primarily due to their natural exteriors. When touched, they feel human. When shot or cut, they bleed. This sort of guest-to-host interaction wouldn't be possible without tangible, fleshy exteriors, as proven by the inhuman drone host.

These skins don't come from nowhere — they are grown, synthesized.

Synthetic skins were first developed in the 1970s by John F. Burke and Ioannis V. Yannas in Massachusetts. Recognizing the need for swift tissue development in burn victims, they created an artificial skin made of collagen fibers from shark and cow tissues as well as sugar, which acted like a scaffold and stimulated tissue growth.

More recently, scientists have used bio-rubber as a scaffold to grow tissues using mice. Using a frame shaped like an ear, researchers seeded the polymer with cells and attached it to a mouse to incubate tissues and connect them to a circulatory system. The same procedure could be used with human patients, as seeding synthetic scaffolds and implanting them directly onto patients would allow natural tissues to grow and integrate with native systems. These processes are necessary to prevent rejection in a patient.

If, however, you were hoping to grow skin for an artificial entity like those seen in Westworld, the hurdles are fewer. Taking a skin sample from an undamaged location and growing it in a petri dish results in a sheet 100 times the size of the initial sample in a few weeks. Repeating the process would eventually result in enough skin to cover an artificial body in a relatively short time.

Memory Recording

Perhaps the most uncomfortable moment of the premiere episode was the realization that Delos was capturing the DNA and recording the experiences of guests within the park. This plot point hit home in a way others couldn't, mirroring real-world experiences of social media interference, most recently Facebook's leak of information to Cambridge Analytica.

Techs within Westworld revealed a mechanical core in the hosts that acted as a camera, recording every action each synthetic experienced from their point of view.

At the least, it revealed a severe breach in privacy within a world that promised the opportunity to act out our most base desires. At most, it uncovered a plot within Delos to utilize private information for personal and commercial gain.

There is little more frightening than the prospect of allowing others to peer within our most private thoughts and feelings, a reality that may be just around the corner.

A study at UC Berkeley put patients into an MRI machine and showed them video images. Meanwhile, scans were taken of their brains, interpreting the signals created while viewing the imagery. This allowed researchers to connect particular images with corresponding brainwave patterns. By reverse engineering them, they could measure brain activity and extrapolate the corresponding images.

In this way, with enough data, your brain activity could be measured and images produced. The images produced would be contingent on the data already available in the system, so it may not be entirely accurate. But, as data availability increases, so too do the fidelity of the images produced. Given enough time and sufficient computing power, the accuracy of translation increases. In time, an effective translation of thought could be produced.

Take solace in the privacy of your thoughts while you can. Soon, even your personal musings may not be private.

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