Tons of science fiction stories have shown artificial intelligence turning against us — but Person of Interest has broken new ground in showing an A.I. takeover that most people don't even know is happening. Creators Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman tell io9 why their show's take on A.I. revolt is subtler than Skynet.
Tonight's episode of Person of Interest is one of the most political the show has ever done, and it's also an intense, edge-of-your-seat thriller, in which we start to see the ambitions of Samaritan, the amoral artificial intelligence that came into being at the end of last season.
As Nolan puts it, tonight we'll see "the connective tissue between Samaritan and the West Wing." We'll also see the way that the information that Samaritan offers is acted upon now by Control and her operatives.
Humans have tried to alter the behavior of animals, and governments have tried to alter human behavior using various incentives — but it's fascinating to imagine "a being more intelligent than humans" doing the same thing with us, says Plageman. "What it wanted to do with us, and what it thought would be better for us."
Keeping an A.I. war subtle and "grounded"
The big balancing act that Person of Interest has tried to strike this season is showing a war between two super-powerful artificial intelligences, without becoming too abstract or leaving behind its realistic focus on crime-fighting in New York. They're helped by the fact that people tend not to believe that invisible forces are shaping their destiny as much as they used to, say Nolan and Plageman.
"We always felt like one of the strengths of our show is that the world is quite recognizeable to people," says Nolan. "It's New York, it's now." They struggle to make sure that however wild the ideas get, the stories still feel as grounded as possible, without "clipping the wings on our writers and our characters."
"There are some magnificent pieces of dystopian fiction," adds Nolan — and the show draws endlessly on George Orwell's 1984, among others. But he feels like "works like that are distancing, on one level." Because their vision of the world feels so strange and "out of kilter," it can be hard to relate.
Right now, the media is full of people like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking warning about the emerging threat of artificial intelligence, says Nolan. "The game I like to play is, 'What if it already happened?' That's what the show presupposes." And in fact, if a super-intelligent computer had already risen up, nobody might be the wiser.
There are tons of "black box" companies in Mountain View, CA, taking venture capital money, and nobody knows what they're working on — and Nolan is convinced they're all working on machine itelligence. And a lot of these companies have been bought by Google.
There's a lot of debate now over whether an emergent A.I. will have a sense of morality, or will be sympathetic to the human race, says Plageman. "Nobody knows the answer to that question, so we thought that the interesting thing to do would be to create two entities — one which is [moral], and one which may not be at all. And right now, the one that's in control is the one that may be dubious in terms of its intent." And so it's fun to watch the ways in which a machine like that could exert its power — without so many qualms about preserving human free will.
People interpret the concept of the Singularity as meaning "a single Singularity," says Nolan, as if A.I. has to be just one thing, emerging in a single dramatic event. "When life appeared on Earth, it wasn't one thing," says Nolan. "It was an explosion of different forms. And there's no reason why A.I. won't be the same. So we love the idea of an invisible, private contest — a private war — between two A.I.s, both networked to the country's most sensitive information. And both manipulating small teams of loyalist humans, to do their bidding."
During this A.I. war, "the rest of the world sees chaos, and what's actually happening is a dark structure that's emerging," says Nolan.
Human beings, having spent millennia attributing natural phenomena on Earth to deities, and now having reached a more rational, enlightened moment in which we understand that weather is weather, [and it's] attributable to all sorts of things, and not the hand of the Almighty. [So] as long as those A.I.s were somewhat subtle about the way they [disrupt things]... humans would still be very unlikely to imagine that there was an invisible hand — literally, in this case — manipulating markets, their lives, politics. We've been so inured to the idea of conspiracy that when a conspiracy of this insidious size presents itself, we might refuse to believe.
Samaritan "can be somewhat overt" and dramatic in its actions at times, says Nolan, to send a message to the powers that be.
Meanwhile, the Machine might be capable of taking some of the same drastic actions as Samaritan — like crashing the stock market, or eliminating crime for a day — but wasn't originally coded to do that sort of thing, and might think better of it, says Plageman. "But I think what's really interesting is what the Machine will have to do to respond to something like Samaritan, to ensure its own survival."
Will Samaritan try to prevent other A.I.s being built?
But what about future A.I.s? Now that artificial intelligence has been developed, neither Samaritan nor the Machine can prevent others of their kind from being created, right? "We love playing with these ideas," says Nolan. "Samaritan might be very, very interested in strangling its rivals in the cradle. Or cultivating them." We've already seen Samaritan trying to build a rapport with the Machine, before deciding to obliterate it instead.
But Samaritan's attitude towards other A.I.s, besides the Machine, is "something we're going to continue to explore as we go forward," says Nolan. "We like the messiness of this landscape, in which intelligence begins to emerge in quiet places."
From the beginning, Nolan says he and Plageman talked about needing to have a strong sense of where this show's story was taking them, and having an endgame for the show in mind. But at the same time, there are surprises that come along, like actor Sarah Shahi announcing she was pregnant.
Could Shaw come back?
The sarcastic, sociopathic ex-spy Shaw was gunned down last week, but you didn't see a body. So "TV rules" clearly apply to her character, says Nolan. "There's clearly a mystery" about what happened to her. "We're hopeful that Sarah Shahi will return to the show, whenever she's ready and up for it." She could appear in present-day stories, or flashbacks, depending on where things are at that point.
Of course, based on what we saw last week, the Machine could create an entire "simulation show," with stuff that's not really happening, notes Nolan. Shaw could be resurrected in a simulation. It could be a spinoff show: "a Machine Elseworlds universe," Nolan laughs.
Meanwhile, there are no plans to introduce one character, in particular, to replace Shaw. "We will never replace Sarah Shahi," says Nolan. "We definitely want to introduce some new characters to the show, but we also want to bring back some old ones, that could really surprise people." Possibly including Zoe, who we haven't seen in years.
And one character will be back soon is Elias, who can't stay upstaged for long. His war against Dominic has been on the back burner for a few episodes, but "Elias doesn't like for other people to steal his spotlight." Look for Dominic to try and find out the truth about Reese and Finch — and Dominic will decide he wants some quality time with Detective Reilly in episode 16 of this season.
And meanwhile, John Reese's cover identity as a cop will continue to be put under pressure, and Fusco will be even more pissed off about having to cover for him. Meawhile, we asked if Fusco will ever learn the whole story about Samaritan and the Machine. "We're just not sure that if we even told Fusco, he'd be able to wrap his brain around it," says Nolan.
Does Person of Interest Risk Losing The CSI Audience?
When Person of Interest started, it felt much more like a procedural, along the lines of CSI or NCIS — but in the past year or so, it's gotten much more challenging as it's delved into questions about artificial intelligence and surveillance.
Do Nolan and Plageman worry about leaving the CSI or NCIS audience behind? Do they worry about losing the core CBS audience?
"I hope not," says Nolan. "Our audience has always been some of the folks who watch NCIS, and then some folks who may not watch a lot of other shows on CBS." Nolan adds that for Plageman and himself, "the word 'Procedural' was never a four-letter word. There are the kinds of procedurals that lack spark or imagination, and then there are some that are fantastic... Our show is no more or less a procedural than The X-Files."
He says The X-Files was always the benchmark that they kept coming back to, in terms of balancing long-form storytelling with strong cases of the week. "We're hoping for the same longevity, and the same success," Nolan said.
"We're really excited that our audience has come along for the ride on this one," adds Nolan. "From the beginning, we were always that show that has had a little bit of a fanciful quality to it, until they can realize that it's not remotely fanciful — it's fucking real, it just hasn't been reported in the paper yet."
"We love playfully predicting the future," says Nolan. "That's been a lot of fun for a number of years. And the audience frankly gets bored with the same old bullshit. They want something a little different. That was our way into the show from the beginning."
Meanwhile, the Westworld show, which Nolan is developing for HBO, will explore a lot of the same questions about A.I. and our relationship with technology as Person of Interest. But it has "a very different spin" on those ideas. "In [PoI], the A.I. is not really anthropomorphized at all," but in Westworld, you'll be dealing with an embodied A.I., whose consciousness is tied to its physical form to a much greater degree.
"We have a very talented group of writers," Nolan says. "they are working with myself and Lisa [Joy], my wife. We are terribly excited. We are going back into production a little later in the year. It's a very, very exciting proposition. It's an incredible cast that we've pulled together, and a very ambitious story."