Do the writers of Westworld, HBO's hit sci-fi TV show, take into consideration all the changes that the world of technology is currently going through, for example, the cloud, industry 4.0, the Internet of Things (IoT), software-defined infrastructure, and data-centric security? Well, yes and no. Let’s discuss.

The chestnut

Westworld, which just finished its first season, takes place in a future in which the wealthy do some live action role-playing (LARPing) with robots as non-player characters (NPCs).

One of the central subplots involves a conspiracy to back up the robots’ data. That’s right, a conspiracy to make backups. Westworld’s principal architect, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), is afraid that he will be fired, and his creations will be taken from him. (This turns out to be a realistic fear.) In order to prevent that from happening, he refuses to back up the data off-site.

But that's ridiculous. Ford will have been born too late to know the anguish of losing a college paper to a corrupted hard drive or a power outage. But those of us who remember that experience have already embraced the power of cloud backups. This text, like everything I write, was composed in Google Docs, and this is just a blog post, not a multi-billion dollar entertainment business that makes cutting-edge AI.

There’s nothing wrong with being wary of storing super-sensitive data on hardware controlled by another organization. But it’s a question of degrees. The data might be stored in a community cloud, in which case it’s sharing only equipment and partitions with trusted partners. Or it could be stored in exclusive racks inside locked cages. In any case, an enterprise such as Delos, which owns Ford’s designs, would probably use a hybrid cloud solution: backing up less-sensitive data to a public or communal cloud, while backing up the most sensitive data to a private cloud.

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But Delos doesn’t seem to be using a private cloud either. One robot that is part of the conspiracy, when caught in a compromising situation, crushes his own head with a boulder. He does this to cover his tracks, destroying his memory so that his motives can’t be discovered.

Remarkably, this ruse works. Apparently, the rogue robot’s memories are not backed up anywhere outside his own body, making his data less secure than the data in my Chromebook. This weird policy is in evidence at other times, such as when an update is found to be problematic, and has to be rolled back.

The robots cannot be updated remotely; they must be physically brought into the maintenance center. And they can’t even be remotely signaled to turn themselves in; they must be “killed.” A special subplot in the story-within-the-story is contrived by the developers in order to bring about the requisite gun battle.

It doesn't look like anything to me

And yet, backups or no backups, it’s impossible that there is no datacenter in Westworld. There has to be at least one, in order to handle the massive amount of data that must be gathered and processed for the place to function. Every object is wired; every apparently living thing, except the customers and the flies, is mechanical. And every robot, creature, and other object has a part to play in a vast, complex, and ever-changing narrative.

Bullets act differently when fired at humans than at robots. An exploding cigar, once lit, sends the command center a “request for a pyrotechnic effect.” A robotic rattlesnake recognizes Ford, and obeys his dismissive hand gesture. Basically, Westworld contains its own IoT. And what we already know, here in the early 21st century, is that an IoT generates massive amounts of data. That data has to be stored somewhere.

What we’ve also learned is that data from the IoT, in terms of quantity, has peaks and valleys. Westworld has its exciting days, full of wanton destruction and story advancement, and it also (presumably) has some quiet nights. Should the same amount of resources in the (presumed to exist) datacenter be dedicated to gathering the IoT data, 24/7, every day? Probably not. That would be as wasteful as a retailer planning staffing as if every day was like Black Friday. Instead, they Westworld need hyperscale, utilizing a flexible, software-defined infrastructure that dynamically groups resources into virtual performance-optimized datacenters (vPODs) based on need.

What door?

Finally, Delos has some strangely old-fashioned ideas about security. Maeve, one of the more self-aware robots, is fixated on escaping from the park. She gets admin access to the surveillance system, and turns off cameras to cover her egress. In a quaint scene that’s partially lifted from one of the show’s antecedents, the 1976 film “Futureworld,” Maeve dresses like a well-heeled human tourist and brashly makes her way through the exit lobby and onto an outbound tram. The audience holds its breath, waiting to see if she succeeds.Ericsson-hyperscale-cloud-blog-train-tracks.jpg

But all this is old-fashioned, perimeter-based security thinking. 2016 is already too late for a data security expert to be fooled by such maneuvers. With data-centric security (DCS), the question is not “Has there been a breach?” but rather “What has changed?” Maeve’s absence from the park, and her presence in the tram, should be enough to set off alarms, even if the way she got from one to the other is a mystery.

A bold new narrative

Westworld season 2 (in 2018) promises to give us a look at unexplored parts of the park, such as the quickly introduced Samurai World. Fans are speculating on whether we’ll get a glimpse of Roman World or Medieval World, as we did in the 1973 movie. But the greatest reveal of all (well, for some of us) would be a look inside the datacenter.

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Michael Bennett Cohn

Michael Bennett Cohn was head of digital product and revenue operations at Condé Nast, where he created the company's first dynamic system for digital audience cross-pollination. At a traditional boutique ad agency, he founded and ran the digital media buying team, during which time he planned and executed the digital ad campaign that launched the first Amazon Kindle. At Federated Media, where he was the first head of east coast operations, he developed and managed conversational marketing campaigns for top clients including Dell, American Express, and Kraft. He also has a master's degree in cinema-television from the University of Southern California. He lives in Brooklyn.

Michael Bennett Cohn