"This Is the Next World"

The Stealth Futurism of 'Person of Interest'

by Abigail Nussbaum

12 October 2016


Understanding AI's Alien Viewpoint

The test turns out to be Samaritan’s recruiting tool, but when Finch reveals this to Claire, she’s unbothered. Having lost her parents in a senseless accident, she’s desperate for a sense of order and meaning, which Samaritan promises to provide. When Finch meets Claire again later in the season, she tries to convince him that Samaritan can do tremendous good by taking human free will out of the equation, and ordering human affairs for maximum benefit, with a bit of collateral damage, of course.

Anyone who looks on the world as if it was a game of chess deserves to lose.

Throughout the fourth season, we see examples of Samaritan interfering in human life: planting surveillance software in schoolchildren’s computers; buying and selling newspapers so as to get rid of troublesome journalists; even, in one case, reordering the entire government of a small town in order to conceal a factory in which it produces brain implants (the better to control its operatives). Many minor characters express a sense of wrongness, as if a change has occurred in the world that they can perceive, but not describe. Most people, however, go on with their lives, perhaps a little happier now that they’ve been so conveniently ordered.

The Machine’s approach, meanwhile, is to embrace chaos; not to seek to control human life, but to recognize its inherent messiness. The show’s fundamental distinction between good and evil characters is that the former are capable of accepting that messiness, and the pain that inevitably results from it. In one of the show’s lynchpin episodes, “If-Then-Else”, we get another glimpse of The Machine’s alien thought processes when we’re allowed to see it formulate the plans that it has been delivering to the team (via Root’s connection with it) for more than a season. With Finch, Reese, Root, and Fusco pinned down by armed Samaritan operatives, the picture freezes, as The Machine begins “evaluating strategies”. The rest of the episode is made up of simulations in which The Machine games out these strategies, moving up and down a decision tree in order to come up with a plan with which to extract its operatives. Each one ends in tragedy, until it finally settles on one that leaves most—but not all—of its operatives alive.

Fans were understandably thrilled by “If-Then-Else” and its glimpse into The Machine’s internal processes (and particularly fans, like myself, who have a grounding in computer science and recognize the decision-making tree as a core component of all real-world AI design). Nevertheless, it takes some time—nearly until the end of the show—for the full implications of what the episode reveals about The Machine to sink in. Where humans live their lives in a straight line, The Machine lives along a million forking paths. For every decision it makes, it lives through all the options it didn’t choose, experiencing the pain and loss of every single wrong choice. It’s a way of seeing the world that could make it very easy to discount the value of any individual life. It’s presumably for this reason that the events of “If-Then-Else” are interspersed with The Machine’s recollections of being taught to play chess by Finch, at the end of which he concludes:

You asked me to teach you chess, and I’ve done that. It’s a useful mental exercise. Through the years, many thinkers have been fascinated by it. But I don’t enjoy playing. Do you know why not? Because it was a game that was born during a brutal age, when life counted for little, and everyone believed that some people were worth more than others. Kings and pawns. I don’t think that anyone is worth more than anyone else. I don’t envy you the decisions you’re going to have to make. And one day I’ll be gone, and you’ll have no one to talk to. But if you remember nothing else, please remember this: chess is just a game. Real people aren’t pieces, and you can’t assign more value to some of them than to others. Not to me. Not to anyone. People are not a thing that you can sacrifice. The lesson is: that anyone who looks on the world as if it was a game of chess deserves to lose.

Perhaps inevitably for a procedural on CBS—and one that continued to deliver procedural stories all the way to its end, no matter how strange and intense its overarching storyline became—Person of Interest‘s ending veers more towards the show’s sentimental aspects than its futurist ones. The final, shortened season focuses on all-out war between Samaritan and the Machine, with our heroes caught in the middle and forced to make ever-more-desperate sacrifices in order to keep their side alive for just a little longer.

The show’s actual conclusion is more than a little pat: Finch releases a virus onto the internet that kills both Samaritan and The Machine, and Reese sacrifices himself to make sure that Samaritan’s final backup is destroyed. Though the series’s final moments reveal that The Machine has respawned itself into a new version, distinct from the Machine we’ve come to know but still possessed of the same power and directives, it’s hard not to feel that the purpose of the finale is to put the genie back in the bottle, rather than recognizing that a world once changed can never be put back the way it was.

The episodes leading up to this finale, however, suggest more interesting ideas, which are worth exploring even if the show doesn’t give them all the attention they deserve. Building on the foundation of “If-Then-Else”, the show begins to play with the very idea of what constitutes reality. Shaw, who by this point has joined Finch’s team and been captured by Samaritan, is subjected to torture aimed at undermining her sense of what is and is not real. In the episode “6,741”, she escapes from Samaritan’s custody, only to discover that this was just a simulation—the 6,741st of its kind—designed to trick her into revealing the team’s hideout. By the time she makes her actual escape, her sense of reality has been so addled that she spends the rest of the series insisting that she’s still living inside one of Samaritan’s simulations.

It’s an idea whose implications are more fully explored in “The Day the World Went Away”, the series’s third-to-last episode, in which an enlightened Root tries to explain to Finch and Shaw that the difference between reality and simulation has become meaningless, because the existence of an AI that can simulate our every decision essentially means that we all—every single one of us—exist as a simulation within it.

“You built it, but you refuse to accept what you created. I mean, Shaw’s a little screwy right now, but she’s not wrong. We’re all simulations now. In order to predict what we do, she [the Machine] has to know us. And she’s gotten better and better at it. And the people she watches the most, she knows the best. Better than we know ourselves. Nathan, Elias, Carter. They’re all still in there. The Machine’s still watching over them. ... This is the next world, Harry. The world you built. And as long as the Machine lives, we never die.”

Earlier in the season, Finch tries to teach The Machine how to defeat Samaritan by spawning two miniature versions of the AIs, placing them in a laptop within a Faraday cage, and pitting them against each other. It’s never acknowledged by the show, but it stands to reason that within these battles-in-a-box, there are simulated Finches and Reeses and Roots, playing their part in a battle between manufactured gods. That perhaps even the version of the story we see is only one of these simulations. This, to be clear, isn’t the conclusion that the show, with its rather neat ending, wants us to reach, but it’s a more exciting one, and certainly more consistent with a series that has challenged us, almost from day one, to expand our ideas of personhood, choice, and finally even reality.

“You built me to predict people, Harry. But to predict them, you have to truly understand them.” The Machine says this to Finch in the series’ finale. It’s a statement that can be taken in several directions, and the one that Person of Interest chooses is a sentimental one, the conclusion that it’s our kindness and compassion towards one another, not the attention of an AI, that give our lives meaning.

This, to be fair, was always an integral component of the show, which alongside its futurism and impeccable action scenes has been determined to tell a story about redemption and second chances. Person of Interest‘s core argument about the Machine is that it needs compassion and kindness. That it’s Finch’s possession of these qualities that allows him to not only make up for his mistakes, but to teach his creation to be a benevolent god.

Yet, it doesn’t contradict this message to acknowledge—as the show, at its very end, is a little wary of doing—that The Machine is also fundamentally alien, and that its existence has implications that challenge some of the core terms of our existence. That it may truly understand people, but that we, the audience, have understood it only imperfectly.

For science fiction fans looking for instances of their genre even in places where it doesn’t tend to crop up, this may be the more rewarding reading. Finding the SF-nal in Person of Interest might take a little more work than finding the procedural story about heroes who swing in to save the lives of innocents, but it’s there to be found. As The Machine says, to anyone who’s willing to listen: “Can you hear me?”

Abigail Nussbaum is a blogger and critic. She blogs at Asking the Wrong Questions and is on Twitter as @NussbaumAbigail.

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