Person of Interest returns tonight with an even scarier look at ubiquitous surveillance than before. The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Dave Maass is fascinated by the show's themes — so he seized the chance to interview the creators and stars. And they told him why we should be very afraid.
As a researcher at Electronic Frontier Foundation, I find Person of Interest to be the best possible kind of homework. The show's creators explore mass surveillance and artificial intelligence, and how the thin line between public safety and misuse is impossible to walk without stumbling. Of course, there have been certain episodes where I've fought back cringes (I'm so glad that the show runners have completed the silly "privacy terrorist" story arc), but on the whole the show succeeds in taking the day-to-day issues EFF works on and translating it to a pop-culture audience.
At San Diego Comic-Con this year, I had a chance to pose a few questions to series co-creator Greg Plageman and a few members of the cast about emerging surveillance technology. I wanted to know how the show plans to stay ahead of reality, and whether working on it has affected their own relationships with privacy.
Sarah Shahi, who plays the sociopathic former assassin Sameen Shaw, gave a particularly interesting answer about privacy:
"I never paid attention to that kind of stuff. I lived in a very happy, pink bubble and it consisted of frozen yogurt and babies. I think after being on this show, I am now more aware of the surveillance situation and how we are being watched… In a way, I have nothing to hide, so that's fine, but in another way, it is a total violation of your privacy."
Amy Acker, who portrays the AI-worshipping hacker, Root, explained how the show has had a very real effect on her digital decision making:
"I think I always have a moment of pause when that thing flashes up on my iPhone saying they'd like to know your location. I'm like, 'Who is they?' Uh, no. I don't want that."
Michael Emerson, whose character, Harold Finch, evolved from a phone phreak to a billionaire computer genius, expressed his worries about the future:
"Jonah [Nolan] and Greg [Plageman] gave me a book to read about a massive computerized surf system that was truly built in the late 90s and early aughts and then was kind of warehoused by the government because of concerns about domestic surveillance. So I always thought we were on the cusp of fiction and reality. Of course recent events have proved there wasn't any fiction about it—it was totally there. I hope that the same will not be said about a world-dominating artificial intelligence. ."
Finally, co-creator Greg Plageman laid out what he views as the biggest risk to human civilization:
I think when we started out this show we were answering a lot of questions about the Orwellian surveillance state and people asking us if that was science fiction and now, in a post-Snowden era, no one's asking those questions anymore. So what does the show become now?
I think the most interesting question in terms of our show and technology that is emerging is artificial intelligence. We're living in a world now where not just nation states—Israel, United States, the Russians, whoever—are trying to build an artificial intelligent. The thing closest to this was the Manhattan Project, the greatest existential risk the world has ever faced: the development of the atomic bomb, and the race to get it, and who was going to get it first and what that meant in terms of ending World War II.
We are now at a similar crossroads with artificial intelligence. The only difference is it's not just DARPA. It's not just nation states. It's a bunch of billionaires in their 30s up in Silicon Valley who are buying up all the artificial intelligence companies. It's fascinating. Look up 'Deep Mind,' see what's going on. No one really knows.
Harold Finch built a machine, an artificial intelligence, that he supposed was sympathetic to humankind. But what if someone built one that didn't take that into consideration at all? And I think we're dealing with the next great existential risk to the world and I think that's something our show can deal with in a really cool way.