Person of Interest's producers tell us what the Machine really is

Person of Interest is back from mid-season hiatus, and already the show is delving deeply into science fictional themes, like the nature of AI consciousness. We caught up with producers Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman to talk about what comes next, and their real-life inspirations for the guns-and-malware world of this show.

In this week's mid-season premiere, we heard the AI known as the Machine finally speaking for itself, through its agent Root. The Machine has been one of the show's most mysterious characters, and it has changed over three seasons as it develops a more autonomous identity. When Person of Interest first launched three years ago, Nolan and Plageman shied away from calling the Machine a character, or anything more than a futuristic version of the kinds of surveillance devices the government is currently using. But now, they are clearly thinking about it in the context of science fiction stories about what happens when non-human minds come to life in our machines.


A New Vision of AI Consciousness

Indeed, they've been thinking for a while about how to make sure the Machine doesn't come across as just a person in a box. They don't want their AI to feel anthropomorphized, or human. Unlike humans, the Machine has a mind that seems to contain many minds at once.

"We're excited by science fiction stories that de-anthropomorphize the machine," said Nolan. He continued:

A lot of science fiction turns AI into a singular voice, with a singular plan. Our analogy for the Machine is more like the CIA, or government, or any large complicated organization. The CIA is one entity with one name, but in 1959 they had one group working toward assassinating Fidel Castro, and another group down the hallway working toward courting Fidel Castro's friendship and support in case he became an ally.

Humans are not capable of parallel processing in that way. But there are many examples of animals that are. And we imagine the machine would be different. What that means is that it [can be] authentically itself while also entertaining different relationships with everyone. It has a different relationship with Finch than it does Root, and it honors the terms of the relationship that Finch wanted.


The Machine as Nolan sees it is a kind of massively parallel mind, but it's also a hive mind like the government organizations that are vying to own it. Nolan also mentioned that Spike Jonze's latest film Her has a similar perspective on AI. Describing that movie, he said (spoiler alert):

There's this gutting moment when [the AI is] entertaining discrete relationships with thousands of people, and she loves hundreds of them. That's what we're going for [in Person of Interest]. AIs will be complicated. They won't have relationships the same way people do. And that will be alienating and difficult for people with whom they are interacting.


And this gets to the heart of one of the most tense scenes from this week's episode, when Root speaks to Control, the intelligence agency honcho, on behalf of the Machine. That version of the Machine is Root's version, but Nolan says "the fact that there are different machines in the Machine makes it no less dramatic for me in that moment." Root is channeling the Machine, "but the fact that you have many, many versions doesn't invalidate what she's saying to Control."


In many ways, this idea for the Machine is very similar to what Ann Leckie writes about in her incredible new novel Ancillary Justice, about an AI ship that is also a hive mind, its loyalties divided between two political factions. Along with Ancillary Justice and Her, Person of Interest is part of a new wave of science fiction stories that are trying to imagine AI as a multiple consciousness, with flaws and contradictions, rather than a monolithic, single-minded "superintelligence."


One of the subthemes that emerges from this thought experiment with AI consciousness has to do with memory. As Plageman notes, memory has always been "a recurrent theme" on the show — both as a unit of computer storage, and a way that humans understand their own histories. In a recent episode, we discovered that the only other AI out there, Samaritan, came to "life" after its creator erased its memories over and over. The Machine went through a similar evolution.


Meanwhile, we're learning more about Finch's history and how he lost his father to Alzheimer's. He built the Machine in part because when he was a boy, he wished he had a device that would help his father's ailing memory and take care of him when Finch was away. Everyone in this show, from the intelligence agencies to the most humble human characters, seems to be trying to erase the past or hoard records of it for good or ill.

The Demise of the Nation State

Like a lot of dystopian science fiction, Person of Interest is also a paranoid tale of surveillance and its consequences. The rest of this season will take us deep into the overlapping interests of private industry and government spies, and Plageman promises that ultimately we'll find out who Greer, Control and other shady operatives really work for.


"We imagine all these people in the beltway have a day job that doesn't represent full array of what their doing," Plageman said. "They call it a black budget for a reason. As we head into final episode we'll see how that dynamic works." He notes that Hersh and other characters "were all part of this small group — not really rogue — and we'll find out how much it's officialy sanctioned."


Plageman and Nolan say they get a lot of inspiration for the show from what's happening in Silicon Valley. With Greer, a character who runs a mysterious company called Decima, they wanted to offer a composite of many different kinds of private data brokers like Google, Palantir, or even the traffic app Waze. "Greer operates in a world where information is power," Plageman said. But more importantly, Greer operates in what the producers call a "post-nation state world."

Plageman continued:

Greer views the nation state as anachronistic. All he cares about are information and money. Consider the scope of the larger data companies today — Google reaches around the world, and it's even putting things on barges! In this world, corporations aren't tied to nations, and the allegiance of these entities is suspect.


Added Nolan:

[In the writer's room], we talked a lot about the rise of private data brokers. And the idea that Mark Zuckerberg knows more about people than most intelligence agencies. That's a level of power that people underestimate. With Greer, we're anticipating the emergence of private data brokers as a post-nation state development. 20 years ago, Raúl Castro had to recruit a million people for his spy network in Cuba. Imagine the cost! Only a government could afford to do that. But in 20 years, you'd have tiny startups — even something like Waze the traffic app — aggregating data, huge amounts of it, transformative amounts. You have the emergence of figures like Greer whose business [has a transformative power that] could actually be compared with the Manhattan Project. Once, only nation states used nukes, and that power remained with them. But that's not true of transformative levels of data.

Nobody thinks Google knows less than the NSA. We just imagine that we trust them more than the NSA, which is pretty fucking bizarre all by itself. I mean, if your company's slogan is "Don't be evil," it suggests the capacity for evil.


Plageman also marveled at the way young people's priorities have changed in the world of high-tech entrepreneurialism. At one time, he recalled, college students would have been suspicious of CIA recruiters coming to campus. "But Palantir was funded by the CIA," he said. "Today, students are just thankful for the startup money."


The post-nation state data brokers in Person of Interest have their roots in a culture where we've seen the rise of the private military contractor, Nolan said:

A lot of the stuff that the armed forces don't want to do, stuff that used to be their grunt work, is now actually done by private military contractors. Not just running around with guns, but building latrines, and camps, and bases. So much is outsourced. We're looking to the emergence of the private intelligence sector that takes over the role of CIA and NSA. Because with everything being wired, that capability becomes more and more of a possibility — and the question of what happens to that data is very frightening.


Both producers think of this season as having two chapters. Chapter one focused on New York City corruption, and the band of dirty cops in HR. That chapter ended with Carter's death. Chapter two will focus on Greer's company Decima and the rise of the private intelligence sector. By the end of the season, Plageman promised, "you might be able to see what Decima is trying to put together," and we'll know whether Samaritan is going to help him with his goals.


Of course, Decima and other private data brokers have their detractors. On Person of Interest, the activist group Vigilance violently protests the surveillance state. Plageman said that Vigilance doesn't really have a real-life counterpart, though the writers discussed the group Anonymous as well as the underground group in Fight Club as analogies. Nolan called Vigilance a group of "crypto patriots," making them unlike Anonymous, who, Nolan noted sardonically, "all wear those Warner Bros-produced Guy Fawkes masks."

io9 Commenters Got It Right, Says Nolan

In the midst of all this discussion of real-world politics, Nolan wanted to return to a 1970s science fiction story. He was glad that io9 commenters picked up on an important inspiration for the show: the movie Colossus — The Forbin Project.


"There's even a moment where you hear the voice of Colossus in the elevator sequence in the second episode this season!" he enthused. He continued:

We were excited. We watched [Colossus] many years ago. It's the idea of the arms race again, and a comparison to the Manhattan Project. Americans weren't the only people to develop an atom bomb. Watching [American Cold War spying] helped usher in the nuclear arsenals of Russia, China, India and more. That's its own fascinating story, so we couldn't resist the possibility of a second Machine.


So if you want to understand what's coming next on Person of Interest, you obviously need to watch Colossus — The Forbin Project, read up on your Cold War history, and — of course — read io9 comments.

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