A forward-thinking sci-fi show from 2011, inspired by Batman, is actually a prescient and, at times, scary look at the biggest tech problem of our future.
It’s great living in the future, especially thanks to AI. Today, a person can access any number of streaming services to watch any bingeable show or movie we want. If we have the best luxury smart televisions on the market, we can watch them in ultra-high definition and turn it on with just our voices.
Of course, there are a group of artists who remain skeptical about how awesome our future technology might be. Long before the internet was a series of tubes (fact check: it was never that), science fiction authors worried about what technology would do to humanity. More accurately, they wondered what the worst of humanity might be able to do with it. At the time the stories were written, the technology was more metaphorical than aspirational. Yet, the real world has caught up with science fiction really fast, and with everything from connectivity to AI, people are worried.
One such science fiction story isn’t some dusty tome from the turn-of-the-century or even the 1960s. No, it’s a television show that aired on CBS from 2011 to 2016, and it wasn’t really trying to be a prophetic sci-fi vision. However, Person of Interest, is one of the most bingeable procedural shows out there, and its one whose overall story is very interesting in today’s world of AI assistants and easy surveillance.
There is no doubt that this technology can be objectively used for good. Yet, the brilliance of science-fiction drama is that it allows audiences to explore how it can be used for ill. None of us want to give up our home assistants, but are we setting ourselves up for a techno-dystopian nightmare in our near future?
What Is Person of Interest and What Makes It So Bingeable?
The show was the brainchild of J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, and Jonathan Nolan, today one of the co-creators and executive producers of the HBO hit Westworld. However, while the theme of “living artificial intelligence” runs as a common thread in both shows, Person of Interest is a much more optimistic version of that tale.
Fresh off the Dark Knight Trilogy he helped his brother Christopher Nolan write, Jonathan Nolan found himself wanting to tell the kind of street-level, rescue-the-civilian stories that the Batman comics did so well but the movies didn’t have space for. Thus, the show about a former CIA super-soldier (all human, just really, really good) teaming up with a billionaire to rescue people makes sense through that lens. Yet, it was the AI element of the show that made it much more interesting than others shows.
Harold Finch, played by Michael Emerson fresh off his breakout role on Lost, invented an artificial super-intelligence to monitor every person on the planet in order to predict and prevent the next 9/11. In order to protect his creation, dubbed “The Machine,” from the whims of fallible humans, it only offers up a name or a number as a clue to its human agents. For our heroes, this means they have to follow and surveil their target, not knowing if they are even the victim or the perpetrator. (Though, most often, they are the victim-to-be.)
Essentially the Machine believes people are good and worth saving, and Harold, Jim Cavieziel’s John Reese, and various other supporting characters do just that. It’s a fun show, with an easy to follow concept, and the right balance of action and heart. It’s just your old-fashioned mystery-man comes out of the shadows to save a stranger narrative.
So, What Does The Show Have to Do with Real-World AI?
Whenever you hear people talk about artificial intelligence, it’s usually done with warning or fear. In the fiction world created by Stan Lee, an AI robot named Ultron has almost destroyed the world a number of times over, including on the big-screen. The man once called the real-world version of Iron Man’s alter-ego Tony Stark (the creator of Ultron in the movies), Elon Musk, is downright terrified of it.
For a long, long time AI was a purely a product of the imagination. Storytellers through the decades have all cautioned how AI might react, and this fear is what motivates the Finch character throughout the show. In fact, so great is his fear, he hobbles his own creation.
Real-world AI exists, but it’s taken on a much different form than storytellers expected. Let’s look at streaming services, for example, because they use AI all the time. Let’s say you watch Person of Interest, then after you finish, you watch two other science-fiction series like The X-Files and Fringe. You likely wouldn’t be surprised to see other sci-fi shows pop up in your recommendations.
However, because streaming services use AI to track and analyze what you watch, you’d also get recommendations for shows like Law & Order, Castle, or some other crime-solving show. Because what the AI understands that maybe even you don’t, is along with sci-fi you appear to like crime procedurals. Watch enough of one service, and the recommendation AI likely knows what you like before you do.
Wait, What Exactly IS AI?
Even in our world of nearly-constant technological miracles, the kind of AI that people think of when they talk about “artificial intelligence” doesn’t really exist. At this point in our technological history, we’ve not yet cracked the code, literally and figuratively, on “sentience.” The idea of an artificial mind that both thinks like a human and orders of magnitude higher than we ever could is still fictional.
This is the kind of AI that exists in the Person of Interest universe. However, AI is a real thing that exists, and you probably use it every day. Whether it’s Siri or Alexa or any of the other digital assistants that exist on our devices, that is a form of artificial intelligence.
There are two recent advancements have helped limited AI become a reality: natural language processing and machine learning. NLP, as it’s called, is a process by which an AI is able to interpret writing and speech. This is why you can ask Alexa to tell you the weather in dozens of different ways. Machine learning, on the other hand, is the process through which an AI “learns” like we humans do.
An AI takes all those data, analyzes it, and retains the information. Taking things a step further, it uses that information to develop and grow. Yet these AI don’t learn more than they need to. They are limited in many ways, and there is zero chance that Alexa will one day hack the nuclear codes and wipe out humanity just so she can finally get a day off.
Does This Mean Person of Interest Is a Warning About Our Future?
The AI in this series is what you’d call a Super AI, and while it is not designed to be sentient it does achieve its own variety of it. Yet, unlike Westworld, the Super AI we see in the show is not dangerous, vindictive, or particularly murderous. What makes this story unique is that it posits all the dangers associated with Super AI come from the people responsible for it rather than the AI itself.
It is one of the few stories that suggests it’s actually people who are the “bad code” in the program. This is the great morality debate happening throughout the series. But, there is another cautionary tale weaved throughout the series about the technology we have today.
Our devices are fantastic. They help us get needed information, allow us to stay in contact with everyone, and entertain us to no end. The very technology that the heroes and villains need to exploit in the series is already all around them. On one hand, this could be seen as a warning about the pervasiveness of technology, suggesting we don’t really understand what we’re giving up to be so connected.
On the other hand, this technology is used by the heroes to facilitate their “mission.” This suggests that the technology isn’t bad, just we have to have guardians standing between us and those who’d seek to exploit it. Currently, we don’t have anything like that. In fact, the answer to that very complex problem might be found through AI.
How Can the Surveillance State Aid a Super AI?
When the show premiered, Edward Snowden was just a federal contractor and most of us were too fascinated by all the cameras in all of our devices to wonder if anyone was peering out through their lenses. Today, we realize that the surveillance capabilities of the state are incredible and undertaken with little thought to privacy.
Because we love our gadgets, we carry our own “bugs,” meaning with the right know-how any of those devices could be hacked. George Orwell was right that “Big Brother” would eventually be watching us, but he never predicted that Big Brother would be all of us.
A few weeks ago, a bit of tech panic went viral when people popularized the “Ten Year Challenge.” A person would upload two similar-looking pictures taken ten years apart. Some thought this was a trick to help train facial recognition AI to better understand how people age. While this is something that’s likely going on, whoever is doing it doesn’t need people to post their pictures together to do it.
In fact, on sites like Facebook and Google Photos, a facial recognition AI that knows your face and how it ages already exists. Any time you upload a picture and you are given a prompt to “tag” yourself or someone else in the picture, that’s facial recognition AI at work. The Ten Year Challenge was just a single data point. You’ve been training these AI to recognize your face every time you’ve tagged yourself or, even, uploaded a picture.
Of course, this AI will never, say, look at the surveillance feeds on which your face appears and find you. A Super AI could do that, and that’s precisely how the Super AI in the series works. It combines your geo-location data, social data, and everything else to pinpoint the location of everyone, everywhere at all times.
Isn’t That, Like, Really Scary?
If a machine really existed that could locate anyone on the planet at any time, that would be a terrifying prospect. In Person of Interest, the series deals with this in two ways. First, Finch’s character makes it so that while the Super AI can find anyone, anywhere, it can only offer up an identification number, usually a Social Security Number, if a person is about to be the victim or perpetrator of a crime.
In later seasons, the villains in the show have a similar Super AI, but it’s an “open system,” meaning they can ask it a question and get a straightforward answer. In fact, the villains don’t even really abuse the power of that Super AI, but rather they take orders from it. The message here is not subtle.
The other, arguably more fantastical, element to this dynamic is the relationship of the show’s characters with the Super AI. The heroes teach their machine to value human life, so much so that it grows to believe that even a single innocent life is worth risking everything for. The villains, conversely, teach their Super AI that humans aren’t worth very much at all and should be subjugated for their own good.
The capabilities of these fiction AI systems are worrisome, but what’s really terrifying is how some people wish to use it. In fact, outside of a handful of characters, no one in the show is truly “evil.” The heroes, the villains, and the shady government types throughout the series all think they are working to save the human race.
So, an All-Seeing Super AI Would Be…Good?
More than a few characters in the show refer to the Super AI systems as gods. These characters do believe that a Super AI is not just necessary but beneficial to humanity. The show itself, however, is a bit more agnostic on the issue. The only real position the show itself takes on Super AI is that it’s inevitable.
While an artificial consciousness like we see in the series is certainly within the realm of possibility, it is by no means an inevitability. In fact, with the success that we’re already having with limited AI, building a Super AI seems like more trouble than it’s really worth. Why build one AI that knows everything, when you can build a bunch of little AIs that know some things, and then sell all those AIs to us?
Yet, would the prophesies of dozens of sci-fi storytellers come true? Would a Super AI eventually decide to subjugate or, even worse, eliminate the human race? As all the stories have show us, it’s certainly possible. However, it seems very unlikely because the question all those stories are really asking is if a Super AI would have some kind of moral compass.
Would it value life? Would it find humanity to be redundant? Or would a Super AI be the kind of benevolent, all-seeing ruler humanity has looked to the sky and yearned for since we first started asking ourselves “what else is there?” There is no way to know. However, things like fascism and genocide seem to be very human ideas, and one has to wonder if a Super AI would have any use for such notions at all.
Can People Be Trusted with a Super AI?
Even if no Super AI would decide on its own to wipe out the human race, it would be used by people who might not keep to such high ideals. Despite all the dramatic tension and interesting problems the limitations put on the Super AI by Finch, the show seems to suggest that this is the only way to go. Everyone other than our heroes who get their hands on a Super AI abuse or try to abuse the immense power it offers.
The government types, again in the interest of protecting innocents, aren’t to be trusted with the full capabilities of the technology. They would surely abuse it, using it to find not just terrorists but dissidents and people they just didn’t like. The villains of the show aren’t to be trusted with it, because they don’t believe in people. Like every fascist in the real world, they thought they knew what was best for humanity, including that some of them just had to die.
In the real-world, there is little chance that the people who actually design a Super AI have the kind of mythically-perfect moral values of Harold Finch. Just like a human child, without the proper “upbringing” the Super AI could “grow up” to be the kind of nightmare monster sci-fi writers are afraid of.
There are also people who, even if no humans could access the Super AI’s data, simply wouldn’t like the idea of being watched all the time by a computer. If some of those people tried to stop or shut down the Super AI, would it protect itself? It’s not at an artificial consciousness is inherently not to be trusted, but rather that people are simply not ready to accept it. This is the central conceit of this show, and one that rings true despite of all of the fantastical things that happen throughout its run.
Person of Interest is a show that asks (and answers) a lot of these questions, but it packages those answers in an entertaining, fun, and hopeful narrative.
What truly separates Person of Interest from Westworld is that its outlook on both Super AI and human beings in general is just so much more hopeful. The issues laid out above can be frightening, at least to those who dismiss it as outright nonsense. Rather than coming at these issues from a big-picture perspective, they anchor them in stories about individual people in need of help.
The great magic trick they pull off is that they get you to care about the characters, making the larger quandary more of an afterthought. It’s the kind of story only fiction can tell, because to truly see the bigger picture you have to understand everyone’s motivation and desired end result. For some these values change and for others they are consistent, but together they present a unique and interesting tale to think about as we wait for the future to arrive.
What do you think? Do you think a Super AI is inevitable? Tells, along with your thoughts, reactions, and theories, in the comments below. Don’t forget to share the article on social media to get your friends in on the discussion.
Related Article: The Best Tech Shows on Television You Must Watch Today