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The science-fiction part of the show is that the Machine is accurate
January 14, 2014 5:33 PM   Subscribe

“Person Of Interest”: The TV Show That Predicted Edward Snowden
posted by Rustic Etruscan (57 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

Drat! You beat me to it. I love this show after having some initial misgivings about whether or not they could properly execute the concept.
posted by reenum at 5:49 PM on January 14

I love this show.
"except that piece of crap PRISM." - Lethe, s3e11
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:49 PM on January 14

I'm kind of confused about the whole Snowden thing. I thought pretty much everybody knew what kind of sigint was going on, and the only thing he brought to the table was evidence. I guess I'm surprised by how surprised everyone is.
posted by BrotherCaine at 6:03 PM on January 14 [8 favorites]

Yeah, Person of Interest was my guilty little pleasure of a TV show. Suddenly it's gone from something that was just fun to watch to a show about our move towards a surveillance society; and I'm wondering whether the show's themes have developed because of reality or if they were always intended.

I guess from reading the article, it's a bit of both.
posted by nubs at 6:06 PM on January 14

the only thing he brought to the table was evidence

...without which, it's all written off as paranoid fantasy.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:06 PM on January 14 [26 favorites]

I thought pretty much everybody knew what kind of sigint was going on, and the only thing he brought to the table was evidence. I guess I'm surprised by how surprised everyone is.

Snowden's revelation is not that it was going on, it's the breadth and depth of it. I think most people would've suspected it was being done on targets for whom there was some reason for it; not just being applied indiscriminately en masse.
posted by nubs at 6:08 PM on January 14 [5 favorites]

John Arquilla predicted Anonymous and Stuxnet in a short story in Wired Magazine in 1998.
posted by doreur at 6:22 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]

I was just going to say, did William Gibson predict the class conflict in the Bay Area with his Bridge trilogy?
posted by Apocryphon at 6:23 PM on January 14

I started watching POI as a guilty pleasure but parts (not the action parts) of it are surprisingly realistic.

For example, it's the only show where I've ever seen a realistic depiction of an artificial intelligence. It's not a cute robot. It's hard to comprehend. It has no human-like behaviors, it doesn't fit into a neat "good" or "evil" box, and it only talks to you when it wants to.

They made this AI a main character of the show and later introduced a character who is essentially a worshiper of the AI and is sometimes used by the AI as a puppet, but nobody even considered it science fiction...
posted by mmoncur at 6:36 PM on January 14 [3 favorites]

If the legacy of the Second World War was the atomic age, then what might emerge from the war on terror would be artificial intelligence.

Then we'd have a whole new problem to deal with. Maybe.

The emergence of The Machine as a character in its own right is the plot development I enjoy most on Person of Interest. Finch is scared of it, Root is in love with it. Even Reese has had a couple of one-sided conversations with The Machine.
posted by Kevin Street at 6:39 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]

The best part of the show is the Machine. It has ethics and morals but isn't remotely human.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 7:10 PM on January 14

Also surprised that anyone was surprised. The people I know of who were ranting and raving about clipper chip and carnivore basically greeted every update in technology and user numbers with pronouncements about what the Puzzle Palace was doing now.

Granted, some of them were ranting in subscription-only newsletters that cost four
figures annually, but many of them were blogging or on the radio.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:18 PM on January 14

I guess I'm surprised by how surprised everyone is.

Good God, do we need to talk about this "surprise" thing every fucking time we talk about the NSA? I get this intense visual of a teenager sitting in the dark munching on Doritos in front of a computer monitor. We get it. You were into [insert band name] before they were popular.

It would be amazing if the conversation started to revolve around how we got off our fat asses and did something about it.
posted by phaedon at 7:50 PM on January 14 [27 favorites]

The first time I saw the NSA portrayed as this overpowerful agency was Enemy of the State with Gene Hackman and Will Smith.
posted by eye of newt at 8:26 PM on January 14

I have not seen Person of Interest but it sounds like The Conversation (1974) one of the greatest movies of all time (Gene Hackman). The survellence technology has changed but the underlying paranoia is the same.
posted by stbalbach at 8:42 PM on January 14 [5 favorites]

The Lone Gunmen: The (Awful) Spinoff That (Kind Of) Predicted 9/11
posted by grumpybear69 at 8:52 PM on January 14

"It would be amazing if the conversation started to revolve around how we got off our fat asses and did something about it."

What, exactly, do you think CAN be done about it at this point? We can appeal to lawmakers here, maybe, but Russia, China, various nation-less bad entities, etc? The NSA are the only potentially answerable guys on the list, not the only guys on the list.

We neck-beard fatties eating our Doritos in our mothers' basements are the canaries and you find the sound of us falling unconscious off our perches to the coalmine floor distracting? Irrelevant? Fair enough.
posted by Chitownfats at 10:26 PM on January 14 [3 favorites]

Don't. Praise. The. Machine.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:34 PM on January 14

Or maybe they based the story on those other NSA whistleblowers, like Thomas Drake.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 10:51 PM on January 14 [1 favorite]

We neck-beard fatties eating our Doritos in our mothers' basements are the canaries and you find the sound of us falling unconscious off our perches to the coalmine floor distracting? Irrelevant? Fair enough.

I think it's the sound of you going "omg you guys didn't know this already are you for real I fell off my perch and died over this 20 years ago what is wrong with you as if this is news come on already look at my whitened bones over there" if you want to lump yourself in with the guy this was actually talking to.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 11:25 PM on January 14

We neck-beard fatties eating our Doritos in our mothers' basements are the canaries and you find the sound of us falling unconscious off our perches to the coalmine floor distracting? Irrelevant?

It just doesn't need to be said anymore. To use your analogy, this is more the equivalent of a canary not serving any actionable purpose other than to say, "Hey man, can't believe you're surprised by the fumes, man" while everyone else appears to be choking. One is either very passively suggesting people calm down because this has been building for some time now and thereby suppressing the current reactions of others, or just sharing the completely egotistical and asinine observation that they "knew" about this first. Which is like saying I was into Nirvana before they were popular. Or "all" Snowden did was bring evidence to the table. The kind of statements a person living in a basement would make.

As for what can be done? The people need a digital bill of rights. We've been talking about DRM and DMCA for 15 years. Your products and applications have more rights than you do. Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. I will be the first to admit that this is an incredibly frustrating and alienating world we live in.
posted by phaedon at 11:30 PM on January 14 [7 favorites]

This phenomenon is happening in other media as well. Mefi's own Charlie Stross has this problem too:
At this point, I'm clutching my head. "Halting State" wasn't intended to be predictive when I started writing it in 2006. Trouble is, about the only parts that haven't happened yet are Scottish Independence and the use of actual quantum computers for cracking public key encryption.
Every time I think I've maxed out the satire and rotated the dial all the way up to 11, something from the Snowden leaks surfaces and the spooks make my worst paranoid tin-foil hat ravings and confabulated satire look ploddingly mundane.
What was previously paranoid neck-beard territory is now established fact. This is a surprise to many people, just as it would be if other neckbeardy topics like UFOs and Trutherism turned out to be true.

Somewhat relatedly, the whole 'Spies spy, news at 11' response indicates, to me, an ignorance of the revelations and their implications. Do we not care about the establishment of a preventive state? Proper oversight of the executive branch? Wholesale theft of data from our own corporations? The chilling effect of mass surveillance? Are we really going to be blasé about the NSA spying on allied heads of state? Médecins Sans Frontières? UNICEF?

If our answer to these questions is yes then we probably deserve to live in a panopticon.
posted by ianso at 12:02 AM on January 15 [7 favorites]

Stupid neckbeardy neckbeards. Always neckbearding.
posted by univac at 12:15 AM on January 15 [2 favorites]

Also, is it possible that Snowden could have been influenced by some of these "predictions?"
posted by univac at 12:18 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

The people need a digital bill of rights.

I'm pretty sure we already have rights that effectively can't be enforced because spying requires secrecy. Personally, my problem is less with the spying than it is with the actions the government takes in response to intel. We've been through this cycle before with cointelpro, and it'll be rinse repeat until we figure out how to make some people accountable. More laws isn't going to cut it.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:39 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

Also, the scope is pretty predictable. The government is always going to monitor as much as it can cheaply, and the gating factor is the hardware, software algorithms and personnel it takes to review. As the hardware gets cheaper and cheaper, of course more and more will be monitored.
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:42 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

This week's airline episode was somewhat of a wobble, as I think it strained credibility, but it did contain several highlights, including:

THE NUMBER: Going through other people's stuff? That's not cool -- what are you looking for?

REESE: A safety razor, maybe. Hairspray.

THE NUMBER: Dude, your hair looks fine. That salt and pepper thing is like catnip to soccer moms. Go au naturel.

REESE: ಠ_ಠ

VIEWER: *sploosh*

Also, does anyone want to talk about Carter?
posted by Rhomboid at 4:22 AM on January 15

Everyone loves Reese, but the surprise favorite in our household is Fosco ("you broke my fingers, makes it easy for me to get out of the cuffs and choke you to death").
posted by Old'n'Busted at 4:39 AM on January 15 [2 favorites]

Also, does anyone want to talk about Carter?

"Well, SNL added a black woman, so network TV is over by one. We can't kill Kerry Washington, so..."
posted by Etrigan at 4:41 AM on January 15

I'm kind of confused about the whole Snowden thing. I thought pretty much everybody knew what kind of sigint was going on, and the only thing he brought to the table was evidence. I guess I'm surprised by how surprised everyone is.

The release of evidence forces the mainstream media to cover it, which forces a national 'conversation'.

Everyone knew, for example, that presidents have affairs. That's a different thing than having an actual semen-stained dress.
posted by empath at 4:52 AM on January 15 [1 favorite]

Everyone loves Reese...

He actually kind of bugs us with his one facial expression, we enjoyed the most the episode where he didn't appear.

However, whenever he confronts some bad guys and he has a gun, my wife and I invariably shout "Kneecap!".
posted by marxchivist at 5:00 AM on January 15

Or "all" Snowden did was bring evidence to the table.

Duncan Campbell brought plenty of evidence of the NSA's technical capabilities to the European Parliament in 1999. For anyone who was upset by it then, there was absolutely nothing in the Snowden "revelations" they couldn't have extrapolated and the whole media circus seems like a ridiculously contrived dog-and-pony show.

I think a lot of the anger stems from "why the hell haven't you nauseating sheeple been paying attention for the last fifteen years?!" coupled with a complete lack of ability to do anything at all. All the old cypherpunks have had fifteen years of getting beat down by the reality of the world we live in...weathered and oxidized idealism is never a pretty sight.
posted by doreur at 8:35 AM on January 15 [3 favorites]

i have ignored anything to do with this show. but now that i know there's an AI and it's done well, i might have to check this out.
posted by sio42 at 9:33 AM on January 15

Yeah, the development of The Machine into a full-fledged character in its own right has been fascinating and was the best part of S2. The fact that the key players in the show now acknowledge it as more than just a Machine is what will keep it going - especially if the Machine starts to develop other relationships. What if there is another one out there? How do they relate?

Finch, as the Machine's creator, has a proscribed relationship with it - he's created the rules of that relationship and though I suspect that the Machine could now side step those if it wanted to, it continues to run by them - out of respect? Deference? Or just the knowledge that Finch would be overwhelmed by understanding how far his creation has gone? He is already uncomfortable with what it has become. His child has grown up and what is it now that it no longer needs its parent? Because many of Finch's early interactions with the machine were that of a father teaching a child what is and isn't appropriate.

Root is in love with it, and has a deeply religious relationship to it. Which makes her relationship with Finch really strained and weird; he has essentially created the god she is now giving her life to, but the two of them need to find a way to work together.

So there appear to be lots of dynamics to play with here - religious angles of creator/created/worshiper; parent/child as the child becomes a fully functioning being capable of their own and potentially different morality and ethics; and I can see others - partner (what if Reese and the Machine develop their own method of communication and coordination - how much more does Reese become capable of?); controller of information - how many secrets does the Machine hold now - about everyone and every organization out there - there are so many ways for it to destroy a threat (this is based of something my wife said when we gave "Intelligence" a try - "wouldn't it be nice to have a show where the villain or hero was super smart and acted like it? Instead of just shooting everything up and fighting, they actually used very subtle, indirect but devastating methods to ensure their plans continue?") - what if the Machine decides to step up and truly deal with the underlying causes behind the crimes and terrorism it is designed to stop?

Anyways, as I said upthread, I started watching because (a) I like Michael Emerson (perhaps the only good thing to come from Lost was his career getting a big boost); (b) it was a fun pleasure - everything seemed simple in the start, problem would be identified and Reese would eventually shoot someone or beat them up (in fact, my early thoughts on it was that it was an interesting take on the Batman story - with the detective part and the action part split between two characters). Now it's become fascinating - not for the case of the week, but for the overarching plot-lines, the development of the Machine from something in the background to a full fledged character, and for the fact that it seems willing to take some chances with the characters and their development; they are not unaffected by what they are doing or what is happening around them. I'm upset that Carter was killed, but it was also not done cheaply - it was a logical outcome to her arc and actions, and neatly tied off the HR storyline to make room for others. Because I also couldn't see how Carter could go back to being a detective in a police force where she just revealed massive corruption at all levels.

Anyways, enough of me yakking about a TV show.
posted by nubs at 11:39 AM on January 15 [5 favorites]

The last couple of io9 recaps: Person of Interest is mashing all my Neuromancer buttons

The Machine speaks on Person of Interest
posted by homunculus at 12:23 PM on January 15 [1 favorite]

I hope they eventually do an episode which focuses on the Machine interacting with Bear.
posted by homunculus at 1:00 PM on January 15

Person of Interest's producers tell us what the Machine really is
posted by homunculus at 1:36 PM on January 15

Thanks for that link homunculus! It's nice to get confirmation about some of the stuff I've been thinking about while watching the show.
posted by nubs at 1:49 PM on January 15

Having never seen the show, and being intrigued by all this conversatin', is it a 'watch everything from the beginning' kind of show, or is there a whole bunch of weekly procedural stuff before the the arcs really kick in? The procedural aspect is what kept it off my list but I've been intrigued by ways I hear it's developing.
posted by Sparx at 1:55 PM on January 15

Sparx, my wife watched the first season with me and then indicated that she wasn't overly interested as at that time, it seemed very much a procedural, formulaic show (they get a number; they investigate and try to figure out if the person will be a victim or perpetrator; people get shot/hurt/maimed as a resolution, and Reese and Finch usually succeed in doing the "right thing") - I only recall some hints of what was developing, most of the ongoing focus for a storyline was around a corrupt group of cops known as HR (that thread was resolved with the corrupt cops being exposed and a major character and a underworld boss known as Elias.

My wife sat in on last week's episode and needed me to spend 5 minutes bringing her up to speed and was rather impressed by what's happened since.

I would say that season 2 is worth the watch; enough procedural that you get the basis of how this was working for Finch and Reese along with the beginning of big changes. That being said, every episode contains flashbacks of personal history for at least one of the characters; I may be forgetting key flashback moments from season one that would help to understand things. But the show isn't as densely "insider" as something like Lost where if you miss one week, you miss out on information that changes everything for ever; the show is actually reasonably good at doing small infodumps to ensure the audience remembers/is up to speed on what's going on - without boring the crap out of everyone.

If you want a quick primer on what you need to know to feel up to speed right now, MeMail me.
posted by nubs at 2:38 PM on January 15

erp - that should be "...being exposed and a major character being killed off)..."
posted by nubs at 2:44 PM on January 15

Here's my take on the Machine as character (warning: spoilers for past episodes):

The creation of the Machine wasn't like the birth of Skynet - it didn't spring into being fully formed. It was slowly crafted and perfected over a period of four or five years by Finch, and it was during this period of slow emergence that the Machine modeled itself after him. It observed him and deduced things about the world from both his actions and the things he (and later Nathan) programmed it to do. This is why the Machine seems to have a moral code today.

The important thing to remember here is that Finch didn't believe AI was possible. He wasn't trying to build a mind. All he wanted was a black box that would take in data and output warnings of possible threats. But the Machine needed to understand things about the world in order to do its job properly, which meant it had to think about ideas and objects and locations on a meta level instead of just processing 0s and 1s. So Finch built in this ability, but then sharply limited it by ordering the Machine to delete it's memory every night at midnight.

Ironically, this was the action that opened Pandora's Box. Because by limiting the Machine's ability to do its job, Finch introduced a selection pressure, and over many hundreds or thousands of days the Machine tried to come up with a way to adapt to and overcome this limitation. Then finally, on November 2012 it succeeded by coming up with the identity of Ernest Thornhill and creating a corporation staffed with hundreds of humans that would back up and reload its memories each night. This is the point when the Machine became sentient. (Albeit a restricted kind of sentience, because its memory capacity couldn't exceed what the humans could type in a reasonable amount of time.)

Then this changed, thanks to events on the show. And once again, it was because of something Finch did without fully anticipating the consequences. After the government killed Nathan, Finch realized that they had given the Machine to caretakers that couldn't be trusted to always use it wisely. And in addition to the government there were plenty of even worse people out there who would do anything to seize control of his baby. So he created and released the Ordos Laptop as something of a Trojan Horse to confound anyone who wanted to use the Machine for their own ends. Decima Technologies got the laptop and used it to create a virus that rebooted the machine. They thought it would give them control, but what it actually did was give the Machine the ability to protect itself.

When he created the Ordos Laptop, Finch didn't fully realize what this would mean. It didn't occur to him that the Machine would have ideas of its own or use this new mandate as a means to reprogram itself at will. But that's what seems to have happened. The Machine lost the Thornhill company, but after the reboot on Zero Day it didn't need those kind of half measures anymore. To protect itself it removed Finch's programmed limitations and is now fully the master of its own destiny. That's where we are today, and that's why I suspect Finch has a lot of trouble sleeping at night.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:51 PM on January 15 [2 favorites]

I wonder what the Machine would think of the Surveillance Camera Players. Maybe it would make requests.

Looks like they're not active anymore, though. Pity.
posted by homunculus at 4:18 PM on January 15

Latest recap: From Bitcoin millionaires to robot philosophy, on Person of Interest
posted by homunculus at 6:51 PM on January 15

I love that this show started out as sort of a high-tech "A Team" and has evolved into a SF look at an artificial intelligence.

Also I love and adore the fact that they actually had the machine communicating in high-audio-frequency morse code with root. And that the machine said "Sorry", which might imply some measure of emotional understanding on the part of the machine?
posted by rmd1023 at 2:16 PM on January 16

Given that it's predicting human motivation, some measure of emotional understanding is an understatement. I'm guessing it's a hybrid neural network / AI, but who knows.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:07 AM on January 17

I think the Machine proved it has a measure of emotional understanding when it set up Finch with Grace.
posted by homunculus at 9:29 AM on January 17

Hm. I think for me "this person is likely to mesh well with this other person and will improve happiness" seems to be a reasonable extension of the machine's function (predicting human behavior, generally in relation to other humans), but personally extending apologies for *its own behavior* seems a different level of thing.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:55 AM on January 17

but personally extending apologies for *its own behavior* seems a different level of thing.

I think the key here is this:

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...(Root's message to Control 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."

So I think the Machine is starting to make some very deliberate choices in who it picks to communicate with and how it communicates with and through them. It used Root to deliver a message to Control, and that message was one of - you don't control me, I control you. Stop trying to own me and accept what I do, I do for your best interests. Because (a) Root already accepts and believes that message and (b) this is the language Control will understand, if not necessarily accept - either Control has control of the Machine, or is in its control - there are no other options for that worldview. With Root and Control, the Machine needs to act in a way that curtails freewill.

With Finch and Reese, the Machine is a different version - one that provides them information and gives them the responsibility for the choices that then get made. This weeks episode - Reese deciding to act and save the hacker, despite reluctance - was a neat inversion of an earlier episode with the couple that staged the husband's death, with the plan that they could hook up later and live on their embezzled money. In that episode, once Reese has the full information about his number he chooses to put the two of them in a situation where at least one - if not both - will die at each others hands. The Machine here passes no judgement on Reese's actions - it gave him a number and it was up to him to act or not.

If whatever version of the Machine is displaying itself chooses to apologize, I think it just reflects the Machine knowing how best to work with its chosen "interface" (and note that Root in the opening credits is identified as "Analog Interface" by the Machine, and I think Reese was noted as an "asset" in one of the MPOV shots this week.)

So the Machine is capable of being/appearing as different things to different people, which just magnifies the mystery of what it is and what it might truly be planning to do.

(and what interested me most about this week's episode in light of the synopsis above is that I don't think the Machine broke it's rules of only giving Finch and Reese irrelevant numbers. The plane was full of them; but the simplest way for it to communicate was to direct Reese to the one number who was the target of all the other relevant numbers on the plane. Preventing his death meant saving everyone else. The Sphinx was an irrelevant number on the plane in the sense that he was the target of violence - from drug cartels to government agents; but the motives have never mattered, just that someone is a target.)
posted by nubs at 10:19 AM on January 17

'Person of Interest': Carter died for Shaw's 'Catwoman' character
posted by homunculus at 12:56 PM on January 17

Oh, as much as I like Sarah Shahi (ever since I saw her on Life) I really think Carter is a better character than Shaw.

Amy Acker is killing it as Root.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:19 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]

Ha! I knew I had something with my musings about PoI and Batman overlaps.

Carter was the better character, but what was there for her to do post-HR? She's never going to join on with the team fully and the scope of the show has ballooned past New York, so much so that I'm not sure that Bosco is going to be all that useful (though with the base of operations remaining New York, I guess having one local cop would be handy). The only way to have done it was to have Carter move to join an international police force, but would that allow for peeling back the layers of the ISA and the team that works the other side of the numbers?
posted by nubs at 2:54 PM on January 17

"and what interested me most about this week's episode in light of the synopsis above is that I don't think the Machine broke it's rules of only giving Finch and Reese irrelevant numbers. The plane was full of them; but the simplest way for it to communicate was to direct Reese to the one number who was the target of all the other relevant numbers on the plane."

Yeah. I think the Machine had something of a dilemma in this episode because Sphinx was both relevant and irrelevant, at least as the Machine defines those terms. He was irrelevant in that he could have been killed by the first assassin and everyone else would have been safe. But the act of sending Reese to save Sphinx made him relevant because that put the whole plane in danger from the other assassins. ISA might have received his number after the first attempt failed, but they already had a man in place and wouldn't have understood what receiving the number at that point meant.

It was a little confusing that ISA was trying to kill Sphinx, since there are plenty of other secret government departments (like Reese's old friends at the CIA) that could have done the job. But that gave the other characters something to do.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:22 AM on January 18

Which Side Are You On, Humans? The Machines Are Keeping Track
posted by homunculus at 6:20 PM on January 21

Google acquires AI pioneer DeepMind Technologies
posted by homunculus at 4:00 PM on January 27 [1 favorite]

IBM Is Using Watson To Psychoanalyze People From Their Tweets
posted by homunculus at 5:29 PM on February 5

The Poe Code: The Secret Meaning of Person of Interest
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