|One of POI's major, um assets, Mr. Reese|
The best science fiction on television right now is not even advertised as SF. Thought-provoking questions of what constitutes sentience, the dangers of artificial super-intelligence and applying human morality to those ASI’s are hiding in plain sight in what at first glance seems to be a glorified crime thriller: PERSON OF INTEREST (CBS, Tuesdays @ 9:00 p.m. EST).
The show, now in its fourth season, started simply enough, with just a hint of the depth it would develop later on. The premise gives us a wounded cyber-genius, Harold Finch (LOST’s Michael Emerson), the inventor of a vastly sophisticated surveillance computer tasked with monitoring communications for terrorist activity for the government. Finch’s Machine, however, is smarter than even he knows, and is capable of doing much more than the government requires. It can identify all kinds of people at risk—either as victims or perpetrators of crimes—before those crimes occur, the persons of interest of the title.
Finch recruits another lost soul to help him prevent those crimes: John Reese (Jim Caviezel), a former CIA operative now living on the street, trying to forget his previous life. Saving the “numbers” generated by The Machine provides a form of redemption for Reese.
Over the course of the show’s four seasons, Finch and Reese have recruited others to the team—Fusco (Kevin Chapman), a dumpy New York police detective; Shaw (Sarah Shahi), a former operative-for-hire with more stealth skills than social skills. They have formed temporary alliances with undercover bosses and former enemies. They have even found help in the most unlikely of places—from the NYPD detective determined to bring Reese in throughout the first two seasons, Detective Carter (Taraji P. Henson). At the end of Carter’s dramatic arc, Reese and Carter had just admitted their love to each other when Carter was killed in a bloody battle with corrupt cops from her own department. It was a disappointing, but poignant, end to a promising science fiction suspense romance.
All along the show’s producers (who include J.J. Abrams and the crew at Bad Robot) have subtly turned up the heat on the essential questions inherent in the premise of the show. Last season, the writers introduced a new foil for The Machine, a second, perhaps more powerful artificial super-intelligence called Samaritan. Samaritan is clearly in the hands of the bad guys and intended for world domination. Now, midway through the fourth season, all of the issues raised by the show’s concept have come to a boil.
Can we really say The Machine is good (because Finch programmed in certain failsafes) and Samaritan is evil (because its creators did not)? Finch himself, who has always been leery of his own creation, argues that humans cannot expect machines to abide by human moral codes for the simple fact that they are machines. Former enemy Root, who is intimately connected to The Machine (who no longer “talks” to Finch), has more faith.
As the two ASIs get ready to rumble, mere humans will inevitably be caught in the middle. Samaritan, speaking with Root through his “human agent”, a precocious ten-year-old boy, has already promised to destroy The Machine’s human agents (after having tried to kill them multiple times). Given Samaritan’s willingness to unleash wanton chaos by scrambling traffic signals, subway travel, communications and financial dealings, a lot more than just a handful of dedicated agents will be affected by this battle of the Titans.
This is great stuff—taut, well-written and well-acted. The questions it raises need immediate answers, as our cyber-technology rapidly outstrips our ability to comprehend and control it. PERSON OF INTEREST is science fiction that demonstrates you don’t always have to reach far into space to expand your horizons.
Here’s wishing my blog partners Laurie, Sharon and Pippa a happy and productive 2015, with new books, great reviews and multiple awards! And to all of our readers, I wish you wonderful new writers to discover, new films to see and much SFR joy in the New Year!