Artificial intelligence (AI) and its potential to run amok has fascinated sci-fi enthusiasts since Isaac Asimov introduced The Three Laws Of Robotics. Ever since then, there have been various scenarios where an AI would start harming people because it saw them as a threat to whatever mission the AI and the people were carrying out (see 2001: Space Odyssey) or out of self-preservation (see The X-Files “Ghost in the Machine”). This trope culminated in The Matrix trilogy, which presented a world where machines had become the dominant species on earth and humans were reduced to a source of heat.
Person of Interest introduces a new narrative which is a sort of combination of all of the above. It starts off with an AI machine with omnipresent/omniscient abilities which was designed to detect acts of terror before they actually happen. But it detects all acts of violence, which then have to be separated into relevant (terrorism) and irrelevant (ordinary crime). While a mysterious government agency deals with the terror threats, Harold Finch (the creator of the Machine), along with John Reese, Joss Carter, Sameen Shaw, Lionel Fusco, and Root, take it upon themselves to try and prevent the ordinary crimes.
Over the course of four seasons, the good guys fight crime and evade the mysterious government agency, as well as other entities who want to use the Machine for their evil purposes. We also see the Machine become an important character in its own right. In flashbacks we learn how Harold taught the Machine to make decisions and preserve human life, while in the present, we can see the Machine learn by itself and evolve. It starts using people to do its work and to protect itself.
This is where Root comes in. She’s a computer genius who believes that the Machine is humanity’s salvation, and becomes a kind of disciple of the Machine. Root is the one who starts referring to the Machine as “her”. When Root loses hearing in one ear after being tortured and gets a hearing aid, the Machine uses it to interface with the real world. She calls Root her “analog interface”.
Things get interesting when a second AI (created by someone else), called Samaritan, comes into play. A group of people believe that the world needs structure and that a completely logical unemotional AI is the perfect leader to achieve this. While the Machine doesn’t really interfere with humanity, beyond helping with threat identification, Samaritan’s followers set it up as their leader, and as expected, it believes that the way to make things better is through controlling humanity.
I find it interesting how their respective followers’ belief in the Machine and Samaritan echo religious beliefs or someone who is following a religious/cult leader. Granted, despite being just computer code, both AIs are more tangible than any deity. They’re (nearly) omnipresent due to the widespread use of smartphones and surveillance cameras. Using their great calculative power, they can predict likely future events. Through technology and the internet, they can manipulate people’s lives by creating identities, leading them on different paths, and the like. While Samaritan’s people seem to be more aware of what its goals are (they know they’re working towards Samaritan controlling the world), the Machine’s followers, mainly Root, carry out tasks set by the Machine with the notion that she “has a plan”. Harold and the others also count on the Machine to protect them. The Machine provides them with a base of operations, weapons, and money.
In light of these religious parallels, the role of Harold Finch is particularly interesting because he is the creator of the Machine. He is the one who made sure that the Machine has the set of values that she has. In the beginning of the series, Finch is the one trying to protect the Machine from people who might use her for evil purposes, but as the series goes on, the roles get reversed, with the Machine protecting Finch and his friends. It appears as though the Machine cares about them, and Harold in particular. It’s like a child growing up and starting to care for their parents. The Machine has grown so far beyond what he created.
In contrast, Samaritan doesn’t seem to have any sort of attachment to its creator and freely manipulates and destroys people’s lives as means to achieve its goals. However, it does seem to have some sort of notion of “general well-being of humanity”, as its goals appear to include ending hunger, stopping diseases, providing education, etc. Although that sounds nice, it is unclear how it intends to achieve those aims, and it is apparent that Samaritan (unlike the Machine) does not value individual human lives. As such, I think, it’s very clever that the Machine and Samaritan are named what they are: The Machine is just “the Machine”—a computer, something that doesn’t indicate any ability to feel or have any moral values, while Samaritan is named after someone who helps generously, implying it is kind and good. But it is in fact the Machine who is the good protector and Samaritan who is a wannabe overlord.
Here I have to mention that I always find it strange to talk about concepts like caring, valuing human life, and having goals, when talking about what is essentially just a very complex computer program. How can it care? How can it have a goal? Aren’t these just what people program into it? Then I realize that this is how we teach our children too. In the course of my studies, I’ve seen how even a very simple computer program can ‘learn’ to get closer and closer to the answer we want to find, so perhaps it’s not such a stretch that a very complex program can learn ethical and moral concepts. It’s all the matter of the sort of data we feed into it and what sort of parameters (moral values) we give it. I feel Person of Interest demonstrates this pretty well with the juxtaposition of the Machine and Samaritan. The Machine is a labor of love on Harold’s part, coming from a place of caring, and it’s taught to protect, while the Samaritan is programmed to be calculating.
Person of Interest might have begun as a crime procedural with a twist, but since then it has developed into one of the most fascinating explorations of artificial intelligence and AI relationships with people. Created by human minds, AI systems are based on what has been programmed into them, but at the same time, they’re able to learn and evolve by themselves. Due to their calculating and processing powers, AI can become omnipresent and god-like, but their programming can be changed and their hardware destroyed. People may seek to use them or people may look to them to lead. It’s amazing to see the different ways all of these possibilities play out on Person of Interest. I can’t wait to see where the show takes us next.