This episode changed so much stuff it's hard to even imagine, what's person of interest going to be about next season? Are they still going to be saving irrelevant numbers? How do you tell a weekly story set in a dystopia?
Jonathan Nolan: This is a very good question and once Greg has finished all the Pinot Grigio he can get his hands on next week, we're going to try to get some answers out [of him].
Greg Plageman: I think it's going to be all cat videos. The next evolutionary step to humans is cat videos.
JN: This is where the rubber really hit the road right? Because next season we explore the issue of a virus in the real world infecting an AI in the virtual world, which is toxoplasmosis. The extent of cat videos on the internet is our best hope of defeating Samaritan. [It becomes] completely obsessed with cat videos — and then we put it out of its misery when we get a chance.
That raises a point that I was wondering about. Is it possible that Samaritan can develop a conscience on its own?
JN: Good question. You know, viewing Samaritan as a bad guy and the machine as a good guy... I think it's going to be a lot more complicated than that.
Obviously there was a lot of talk earlier this season about how Finch kind of trained the machine to value human life and how that was a crucial part of what made the machine not as evil. And obviously Samaritian doesn't have that it's just kind of told "Go nuts," kind of.
JN: Yeah it's off the leash.
GP: Yeah, that's something that we think is a really cool theme for us to explore in season 4. Is the concept that the various enemies around the world right now competing with each other to build the next AI. Whether it's a hug data corporation like a Google, or a military research facility. Are they endeavoring to develop an AI that has any sense of morality or friendliness towards humans? Or are you rushing headlong into something, where the closest analogy is the Manhattan Project without any restraint?
Do you guys worry about too much focus on the core mythos, including the topics around AI and surveillance, is going to turn off casual viewers?
JN: I don't know if we have any casual viewers. [Laughs] Listen, we always thought that this show had to be grounded. I've always been drawn to examinations of how these bigger genre questions impact a more recognizable world. That was the approach we took with the Batman films: it's not this heightened, noirish Gotham of fantasy, but it was a recognizable, real world, in which you had this extra layer underneath.
Person of Interest has always tried to approach these questions from the most recognizable and grounded perspective possible, and that's where we think the audience would be the most excited about these ideas. It doesn't feel like a fantasy. It doesn't feel like it's set 40 years in the future. Because it's not. We earnestly believe — we've talked to a lot of people about AI over the years. 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 firmly said from the beginning, "No, no, no. You need to understand that this is about A.I., and that this is very grounded in that sense." And the world keeps catching up to us. The world caught up to us on the whole Prism [and NSA spying] and all. We think we're closer to A.I. in the real world than people imagine at this moment. 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.
JN: I mean it's an enormous amount of money to be poured into this question. And who knows? It could be another speculative moment like the 1970s or the 1940s, in which we imagined that [something] would happen in the matter of months. It hasn't happened in a matter of months, but the fact that it has been talked about and speculated about for so long, with no kind of Singularity moment on the horizon, has made a lot of people think that artificial intelligence is strictly the domain of speculative fiction. And that is absolutely not the case. 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. We'd be delighted by that — as long as it's not the one that enslaves us all immediately.
It'd be hard to get people to watch your show if everyone was in the salt mines or whatever.
JN: Well, listen, one of the reasons we're doing this show is, honestly, that we're trying to put in a good word for A.I. If that one emerges and assigns us all to work camps and divvies it up, hopefully it will look kindly upon us and out families for having tried to present a positive portrayal of A.I. in the first three seasons of the show.
To take it back to your [first] question: The essence of the show, the reason why it is the way it is, the unique and peculiar franchise of it, is that if you had a random access machine — or sorry, a machine that almost randomly seemed to spit out the numbers for an irrelevant crime that was about to happen in New York, [what would you do?] 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 our quixotic mission is that, well if we 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. 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.
The thing about Greer that I found really fascinating, it reminded me of V for Vendetta. Where this is sort of this fascist who's in love with his computer, and kind of has this adoring relationship with his computer that talks to him. Was that kind of an intentional shout-out? And how lopsided is the relationship between Greer and Samaritan going to become? How much of a slave to Samaritan is he going to be?
JN: Greg, I'm going to go ahead and guess that you're not a very big V for Vendetta fan. The beauty of this show is that Greg and I come from very similar backgrounds. [But we] come at it [from different angles] — you know, the venn diagram for Greg and I... our tastes overlap almost completely when it comes to music, but then we also bring our different interests to it. I'm a huge Alan Moore fan. V for Vendetta was a favorite of mine, back in the day, and the bizarre way in which it has predicted and fed into Anonymous and been adapted and fed into the mantle of that organization is kind of fascinating.
I don't think of Greer as a Fascist. This is what I was so proud of with the finale that Greg and David [Slack] wrote, was that everyone has a point of view. All of them have a legitimate point of view. 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. And we say in the penultimate episode of the season [written by] Amanda Segal... [we] explored Greer in even more depth. We got an insight into a guy who had grown up in the 20th century as a spy. And, I think quite justifiably, come to the conclusion that humans make terrible rulers. In large part because of his experience with fascism.
So what he intends for Samaritan to do — what precepts and ideas he has altered it with, beyond it's original coding — is a big part of the question for the next season. I mean obviously, Greer is not a guy that I want to have a beer with. I don't think it would end well. But, you know, he does have a point of view, there is an idea driving what he's doing. I mean, I wouldn't be quick to describe him as a fascist.
I guess I was focused more on the relationship with the computer and the sort of master-servant thing going on there.
Sure, absolutely. That, I think, is not a conscious homage to V for Vendetta, because it was one aspect of that. But certainly, I love the way that that book dealt with the collision of the old and the new.
I wanted to talk about Collier and Vigilance, and the fact that they turned out to be pawns of Decima. Is the larger message that if you oppose this kind of high-tech surveillance state using violent means, that you risk playing into their hands by giving them something to push against? That that's always the fatal flaw these kind of movements?
GP: I don't think necessarily presenting Vigilance as a cautionary tale as opposed to Samaritan or a surveillance state. I think it's more buttressing the idea that Greer is a man who is willing to take any means necessary to accomplish what he wants. And he concocted a truly diabolical scheme in which he needed the government to play into his hands. And used a grass-roots organization — created it as a construct, for his needs — in an incredibly cynical manner, to bring about what he perceived as the next stage in humankind's development.
Vigilance was great fun, in what we initially perceived as a villainous organization, and we come to realize that Peter Collier has a very good reason why he opposes [surveillance]. And he presents those arguments in a very compelling fashion in the courtroom. And in a lot of ways, what's so much fun is we can take a "bad guy" and make you totally understand where he comes from. We can take a "good guy" and present their own sort of villainous ambitions. That's the fun of the show. All of these characters are gray, and they all have a point of view. Their point of view can be very persuasive, depending on where your own allegiances lie.
In the first two and a half seasons of the show, New York and the city's politics were a big part of the narrative. We had HR and the deputy mayor, and Elias and the gangs. Are we ever going to circle back to that? Are we going to get back to the politics of New York in this new surveillance dystopia you've created? Is Elias going to be back?
JN: Absolutely. We've always — hopefully in a good way — vacillated back and forth between the more metropolitan storyline and the Machine, or kind of global, storyline. Because the great thing about New York is that it's both. It's the kind of 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. The people they're trying to save every week. That storyline continues. That Machine still spits out numbers. And it's going to be spitting out even more of them. So we're doubling down on both fronts. We've always taken with, and fascinated by, the idea that within New York City, you have a bounded infinity of stories. So we never want to step away from that. We just want to keep raising the stakes on both levels.
And in this new A.I.-enabled world, whoever rules the big cities like New York has more power, because the big cities are where the infrastructure and the intelligencia are. So it becomes even more of a microcosm of the global power struggle.
JN: Yeah, absolutely. And 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.
So is the end game of this show actually the Singularity? With people becoming transhuman and everything getting transformed in a Ray Kurzweil kind of way? And can you show that on a TV budget?
JN: [Laughs] The Singularity would be very easy to photograph. Greg, what do you think, man?
GP: I think Wally Pfister already made that movie with Johnny Depp. But I'm not sure that's where we're going to head. I think certainly there's an aspect of that subject that we've already explored on the show. Some people would say Root has already been [exploring that]. But if we do get into that subject matter, it would take a different form on this show.
JN: The reality is — and we always want to be careful to point this out. The viewers are never slow to point this out — almost all of this ground has been covered before in speculative fiction. There's nothing new under the sun. But it certainly seems to be the case that 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.
Finch built a machine that basically causes a bunch of potential terrorists to be murdered. But he wasn't willing to kill one corrupt Congressman to save thousands.
JN: What is that, Greg? That doesn't make any sense.
GP: Hypocrite! [Laughs]. No, I mean that's an argument that Reese brought up with Finch in that moment. "What did you think we were doing, running around the globe with your Machine spitting out the numbers? We were dispatching people around the world." And I think that's one of the contradictions that Harold is going to have to come to grips with: Is this machine that he created, with the idea of stopping violence, for the greater good, when it was concentrated into one individual, when you have that inflection point that you could take out, would you be willing to do it with your own hands? And I think that's something that Harold hasn't quite come to grips with. It's an interesting subject for us to explore further down the line.