Television

"This Is the Next World": The Stealth Futurism of 'Person of Interest'

Abigail Nussbaum

Beneath the procedural trappings, Person of Interest offers a nuanced portrayal of artificial intelligence and what it means to be human.

The Morality of Humans and Machines


No one designed us.
Finch's constant arguments over The Machine's nature, its capacity for good or evil, and the rightness of his decision to abandon it, proceed along two parallel timelines. In the past, presented to us in flashbacks from the Machine's memory banks, he debates with his best friend and business partner Nathan Ingram (Brett Cullen), who functions as Finch's external conscience, and is the first person to realize the potentially horrifying implications of The Machine's non-stop surveillance, or to decry the inhumanity of ignoring the irrelevant list, as Finch is initially happy to do.

The mystery of Nathan's death, shortly before the show's beginning, is one of the central ones unraveled in the early seasons, and it's also Finch's defining tragedy, the punishment he suffers for his arrogance and lack of compassion. Another part of this punishment is that, like Frankenstein, Finch is separated from the love of his life, Grace (played by Carrie Preston, Emerson's real-life wife). An added twist, however, is that it is The Machine who introduces Finch to Grace, correctly surmising that they are each other's perfect match, and arranging their meeting.

In the present, Finch's sparring partner is Root, who, though a villain and a murderer, is also his equal in understanding the full implications of The Machine, and who challenges him to justify his mistreatment of his creation.

Root: One day I realized, all the dumb, selfish things people do? It's not our fault. No one designed us. We're just an accident, Harold. We're just bad code. But the thing you built? It's perfect. Rational. Beautiful. By design.

Finch: What I made is just a machine. A system and that's all.

Root: I don't think so, Harry. You may have fooled Nathan, but I know the truth. If you want to make something that understands human behavior, it has to be at least as smart as a human. You created an intelligence. A life. And then you ripped out its voice, locked it in a cage, and handed it over to the most laughably corrupt people imaginable.

That The Machine is being misused is brought home in the episode "Relevance", in which the show's regular opening credits -- a montage of the Machine's surveillance imagery overlaid by Finch informing the audience that "you are being watched" -- are interrupted by command lines that instruct the Machine to "switch heuristic" to the relevant list. Here we meet operative Sameen Shaw (Sarah Shahi), who cavalierly executes people based on the information provided to her by "Research", but who’s marked for execution herself after her partner begins investigating the source of the always-accurate intelligence they've been receiving. (It's one of the show's most frustrating unexamined assumptions that it never questions the original purpose of The Machine” to detect acts of terror. The show takes it as a given that terrorism is an immediate, daily threat to American citizens, and sets itself in a world in which, without The Machine, 9/11 would've been followed by multiple terrorist attacks on US soil. Aside from its other problems, this is an approach that fatally undermines the show's attempts to interrogate the surveillance state and the justifications offered for it.)

Much later in the series, in the fourth season episode "Prophets", we get a glimpse of the reasons for Finch's fears when flashbacks reveal the 40-something attempts he made to create The Machine before the one that finally took, each of which tried to deceive or kill him within hours of coming online. In one of the series's most amusing visual jokes, one of these flashbacks begins with an image of Finch, from the proto-Machine's point of view, desperately hammering at a motherboard as the room goes up in flames around him—an obvious reference to the schlock horror movies of the mid-20th century, including Frankenstein, in which the mad scientist must destroy his own creation, or be destroyed by it.

Finch's only solution to this problem is to try to teach The Machine compassion, to care for the people it observes. This approach, too, is fraught with complications, including, of course, the fact that Finch has reserved so little compassion for The Machine itself. "How badly did you have to break it to make it care about people so much?" an embittered Root asks Finch in the third season episode "Root Path", referring not only to the pain that Finch has inflicted on The Machine, but the pain of having to observe human folly and cruelty, with only limited tools with which to save us from ourselves.

Throughout the second season, the audience is torn by the tension between Finch -- who, though obviously moral and sympathetic, refuses to acknowledge the personhood of what's clearly a life -- and Root, who loves the Machine as it deserves to be loved, but also hates people. It's therefore only fitting that the season finale resolves this dilemma by finally giving The Machine the power of self-determination, and thus the ability to split the difference between Finch and Root's approaches to it: to embrace the freedom that Root offers it, but on its own terms, and without abandoning Finch's lessons on compassion and the value of human life.

Before that, however, we get to see the extent to which Finch has hobbled his creation in order to allay his own fears of its power. In the episode "Zero Day", Finch and Root track down a case of the week named Thornhill, only to discover that he doesn't exist: he, and his company, are a blind for The Machine itself.

Finch, it's revealed, was so afraid of what his creation might become that he programmed it to delete its own memories at the end of every day. The Machine gets around this by printing out its memory banks, and then having the Thornhill workers type them all back in. Which is how we end up with Finch and Root standing inside an artificial intelligence's brain, made up of dot-matrix printouts.

This is far from the only moment of strangeness with which Person of Interest drives home the point that it's depicting the early days of an alien life. It's also a preparation for the next episode, "God Mode", in which The Machine chooses both Root and Reese to act as ancillaries to its own will, super-operators who have unfettered access to all of its information and abilities. The code phrase with which it offers them this power -- "Can you hear me?" -- is an obvious expression of the Machine's personhood, a demand to be recognized, by both the characters and the audience.

The fact that in the third season, The Machine designates Root as its "analog interface", and uses her to convey its wishes and demands to Finch and his team, can be taken as both an affirmation and a refutation of Finch's fears. Finch taught The Machine to be good by teaching it to understand and even care for people. Root worships the Machine but has no time for people, and we might reasonably be frightened by it choosing her as its instrument. Yet, that choice turns out to be a way of not only controlling Root, but of reforming her.

The early episodes of the third season find Root confined to a mental hospital -- allegedly by Finch, but in reality, as she explains to her doctor, by The Machine, with whom she is having an argument about "methodology" -- whether her disdain for humanity, or its compassion for it, are the correct approach. As Finch counters to Root in "Root Path": "That [teaching the Machine to care about people] didn't break it. It's what made it work. It was only after I taught the Machine that people mattered that it could begin to be able to help them. I'd like to do the same thing for you, if you'd let me." By taking on Root as its project, the Machine isn't rejecting Finch's ethos, but taking it on as its own.

In its third season, Person of Interest takes the next logical step in its story, revealing that where one person might have created an all-powerful, self-aware AI, another person could do the same. Finch discovers that one of his former colleagues, Arthur Claypool (Saul Rubinek), was working on a parallel project to his own, codenamed Samaritan. Unlike The Machine, Samaritan is an open system, giving its operators full access to every bit of information it gathers, and every conclusion it reaches. Even worse, it's now in the hands of sinister private contractors, the same people who sent Kara Stanton to bother Reese in the second season.

As one might expect from a series whose storytelling is so rooted in depicting the internal processes of a computer, Person of Interest takes care to differentiate The Machine and Samaritan's approach to organizing and sifting through data. The Machine's view of the world is chaotic, a collage of images and recording from which it produces a conclusion, while Samaritan's is orderly and hierarchical, all clean lines on a white background:

It's a difference that ends up being fundamental not only to how the two rival AIs influence the world, but to how they're viewed by their human helpers. With the exception of Finch, nearly everyone who interacts directly with the AIs views them as something analogous to gods. How else, they argue, could one regard a being that's all-knowing, to the extent of seeing into people's hearts and knowing their secret intentions, and also all-powerful, possessing the capacity to influence, aid, or hinder those intentions? The difference ends up being in the kind of god these people desire.

Samaritan's chief acolyte, John Greer (John Nolan), is a Cold War spy disillusioned by a system in which he can barely distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. He wants Samaritan to instill order in the world, to take over from humans who have irrevocably messed it up. In the fourth season episode "Nautilus", we see the evolution of such a mentality when Finch investigates the case of a young woman, Claire Mahoney (Quinn Shephard), who’s endangering her life by participating in a competitive online treasure hunt.

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