Person of Interest is one of the most fascinating explorations of artificial intelligence in pop culture. But executives originally pushed for the show to avoid mentioning where Finch's "irrelevant" numbers came from at all, according to creator Jonathan Nolan. The show's producers also told us what's next in season four.
We were lucky enough to have a lengthy phone interview with Nolan and his fellow executive producer Greg Plageman. And they talked to us about the insane season finale that just aired, and how this show is going to pick up next season. Here are ten things we learned — if you want to read the complete unedited Q&A, click here.
The network didn't want this show to discuss A.I. explicitly.
Nolan tells io9:
The show has always been about AI. We try to make no bones about it. There was a juncture very early on in the development of the show, where someone asked us the question: "Well, do we ever have to explain where the numbers come from? Do we actually need to know that there's a machine at all?" And Greg [Plageman] firmly said from the beginning, "No, no, no. You need to understand that this is about A.I."
Nolan believes that we could have A.I. in real life before the show ends its run.
"We think we're closer to A.I. in the real world than people imagine at this moment," says Nolan. "You've got two massive companies in a headlong rush. Two very rich individuals, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg, who are vying to build AI, right now." An "enormous amount of money" is being poured into this idea.
"We think that some form of AGI or some roughly human-like form of intelligence will emerge in the next 5-10 years, potentially within the run of the show," adds Nolan. "We'd be delighted by that — as long as it's not the one that enslaves us all immediately."
The Machine Gang will keep trying to save irrelevant numbers in this new dystopia
The season ended with a pretty intense view of a new surveillance dystopia, where "deviants" and other potential subversives are being tagged. Will our heroes keep saving random "irrelevant" numbers in the middle of all that? Absolutely, says Nolan.
"Even against this backdrop of this massive story that we're telling, those numbers, as Finch says in the pilot, they never stop. They keep coming. And for that team. So they have to spin plates. They have to figure out how to defeat an angry God. While continuing to help people, one person at a time, somewhere in New York."
And for these characters, the ongoing imperative is always: "If you knew somebody was going to be murdered or killed in the next 24 hours in New York City, you couldn't just turn your back on it."
The big question is, can Samaritan develop a conscience?
It's going to be "a lot more complicated" than viewing Samaritan as the evil A.I. and the Machine as the good A.I., says Nolan. And one big question, in season four, is what Greer intends for Samaritan to do, and "what precepts and ideas he has altered it with, beyond its original coding."
But don't call Greer a fascist, says Nolan: "Greer's worldview has been framed by a life-long campaign against fascism. This is a man who grew up in England during the Blitz and joined MI6 and participated in all of the messiness of the second half of the 20th century — the Cold War, in particular, in which you had these massive regimes doing battle with each other." Greer came to the conclusion that "humans make terrible rulers," in part because of his experience with fascism.
We're not leaving New York organized crime and politics behind
We'll still be following the local politics of New York, say Nolan and Plageman, including gang politics. Nolan believes passionately in taking big genre questions and putting them into a "more recognizable world." That's why the Batman films don't take place in "this heightened, noirish Gotham of fantasy," but rather a real city, that just features an extra layer.
And the show will keep going back and forth between the "metropolitan storyline" of New York and the bigger global story of the Machine and A.I. "The great thing about New York is that it's both," says Nolan. "It's kind of the center of the world, in so many ways. But it's also its own rich kind of arena. And Finch and Reese and Shaw, and now Root, and Fusco, are going to continue to be inveigled into local politics, and certainly local crime, every bit as much as they have up to this point."
New York is also the best place to hide from surveillance
Ironically, New York, which is the most heavily surveiled place in the world, becomes one of the few places in the world to hide from surveillance. There was this awful but fascinating story from three years ago, when we were shooting the pilot in New York. There was a serial killer operating out on Long Island — in fact, I think this was the same one who was dumping his bodies not far from where we were shooting a stunt sequence. And this is awful, but he was making phone calls to some of the victims' relatives using their cellphones, but doing it from Times Square. Because he or she, or whoever this villain was, understood that Times Square is one of the few places in the whole wide world where you can make a phone call on a cell phone that's being trace. And when the authorities try to match up that phone call to surveillance footage to see who made the call — and try to match a person to a phone call, essentially — it's impossible. Times Square is filled with hundreds of thousands of people on any given afternoon, all of whom have a cellphone. So it's that hiding in plain sight. New York ironically becomes the only place in the world where you can hide from the surveillance state, even while being the very epicenter of it. So for us, the perfect arena for this fight that's going to take place.
The birth of A.I. will be a messy business.
So much speculative fiction has been wrapped up in the idea of the Singularity, and the idea of convergence, right? And again, my credentials as an anthropologist/computer scientist/historian [are] very dubious, as Greg would be happy to tell you. But for what it's worth, [the notion of convergence] seems out of step with the way that most life developed on this planet.
I was actually at dinner the other night with some really interesting people. And there was a Nobel Prize winner there who suggested that A.I. would almost certainly be as messy as human intelligence. If we look at natural selection on this planet, and the emergence of new life forms, they seldom converge. That idea that A.I. would have to tend to converge seems to me to be as much an artifice — with respect to Kurzweil and all of the other amazing writers who've written within this subgenre for decades now. With all due respect to all that, life seems to be messier than that.
When you look at the cretaceous period, you see this explosion of multiform life. All these different forms of life, competing with each other — that looks an awful lot to us like what we are seeing right now, in a nascent stage online. I mean, you have artificial life online. You have viruses. You have bugs and worms. You have the equivalent of monocellular microorganisms. They will at some point, by someone's design or by accident, cohere into something big enough and organized enough that we'll finally identify it as artificial intelligence.
But there's no reason, to me, that suggests that that will peter [out] into a world where all that intelligence is pulled into and harnessed... and indeed, our own intelligences are uploaded into one mass [consciousness]. It seems likelier that we'll go through a period — either a short one, or a very long one — in which you have competing organisms online, essentially. And as Greer puts it, there will be more like a pantheon of these intelligences. And they'll be using us to fuck with each other.