Person of Interest’s AIs: Can Humanity Seep In?

NB: This was written far before B.S.O.D.’s release, and any spoilers had hit the Internet at all–these are just random musings of my (now BSOD’d) mind. A thinkpiece, if you will (and a probably highly illogical/inaccurate one by now, at least if not within the next few episodes!). If you’d like in-depth reviews on Person of Interest, Ms. Faith Bektas at TV After Dark is reviewing and livetweeting the show! She’s written some great Orphan Black ones, if you’re a fan. For me, I’m not covering POI but I’m simply an avid fan! Alas I do like to ponder these kind of topics and I’m beyond excited to see Root and Finch’s moral ideals clash on the show and what compromises they have to make–in order to simply survive–and if Shaw’s banger of a return will shake things up a bit, including perhaps Root’s motivations. Also, since seeing that extended promo trailer and Shaw in a skull clamp I’M NOPING THE HECK OUT OF MY LAST ARTICLE ABOUT HER. NOTHING WILL HAPPEN. SHE WILL COME BACK AND SHE WILL BE FINE. She just looks exhausted and drawn-out because, um, she had a bout of insomnia… *rocks back and forth*

It’s no lie that Artificial Intelligence (AI) has attracted the interest of television and film, and also real-life. With Britain, under the Conservatory Party, looking to establish more and more security cameras and thus arguably quash our privacy rights, the development of smart-thinking applications such as Siri for your iPhone, and notably in 2014, in which a computer program—’Eugene Goostman’, a simulated thirteen year old boy—passed the Turing test by convincing 33% of impartial judges that it was indeed a real person, not a machine.

There has been huge debate over this issue. Arguments such as the Turing test being favoured and skewed towards the ‘Eugene’ have been made, thus rendering the result null; there are also other AI systems, such as Cleverbot, Elbot and Ultra Hal in existence. But why is science-fiction so interested in the topic of AI? It’s inspired a number of films, such as ‘Ex Machina’, the ‘Terminator’ series, ‘I, Robot’—among many others. Yet most films seem to depict AIs as the villain to be conquered—but computer intelligence is human nature’s creation. So what are we now, in the fictional sense? Progressive technologists spurning potentially evil AIs?

TED guest-speaker Nick Bostrom makes an excellent case for humanity’s progression in the creation of super-fast computers, and how one day, there is a distinct possibility these super-computers could become the dominant race. If you think about humanity, our existence on this planet has been very short—yet with factors such as the Roman Empire’s advanced technology beyond our years (their aquaduct systems allowed for under-floor heating—central heating! Way before it was ever introduced in modern times), the Industrial Revolution, World Wars spurring artillery and medicine, The Cold War and the increase in biological warfare and technology, and the increasing need for efficient consumerism—it’s not difficult to imagine why computers were made to cope with faster, quicker, and more efficient demands.

In the TED talk, Bostrom poses an interesting scenario: as these AIs develop in their intelligence, surely they would opt for the most efficient route of solving a root cause. A weak AI could interpret the mission directive of: “stop over-population” by evenly distributing citizens in less densely packed, urban areas. As the AI develops super-intelligence, it discovers that there is a more efficient route, by wiping out half the population so there is no over-population at all. But does this sound like, to you, that the AI has humanity’s best intentions at heart? It certainly doesn’t to me—and that’s why the conflict of AI vs. Humanity is such a common and now scarily topical theme in our world, because we could be on the very cusp of that. I’d like to focus a little more on Person of Interest, that I think delves into the world of AI with interesting and sometimes scarily plausible ideas—rather than just your regular movie supervillain.



Undoubtedly one of the best shows we’ve been gifted with over the past few years, Person of Interest tackles the notion of AI from the very beginning, in which a young, impressionable and talented computer programmer Harold Finch decides to create an AI for his dementia-suffering father. He’s driven by personal motives to create a machine capable of preserving his father’s memory.

Ingram and Finch watch the news on 9/11 in horror.
Ingram and Finch watch the news on 9/11 in horror.

After watching 9/11 unravel in horror, Finch and his best friend, businessman Nathan Ingram realise that whilst they’ve made significant money from their company IFT, they’ve done nothing to salvage humanity. Ingram, the face of IFT, is hired by the US government to build a Machine capable of predicting terrorist attacks to avoid cases like 9/11 happening again—by using NSA data and surveillance collected by the government. Finch works in the background, eager to keep his anonymity. Together, they build and train their AI to test The Machine’s capability of decision-making and problem-solving, As The Machine rapidly learns, most notably through the chess-scene flashbacks in ‘If-Then-Else’ it also becomes speedily self-aware, attempting to free itself from Finch’s computer, hack into Ingram’s WiFi, overload the servers and set the room ablaze, almost killing Finch. Finch immediately destroys the program. This is what is so fundamentally important about Finch and Ingram’s Machine: they want to teach it humanity’s moral code. They, idealistically, want The Machine to act in humanity’s best interest.

Ingram finds out the government are excluding the ‘irrelevant’ numbers—normal people who could be subject to crime or murder. Ingram argues that they need to install a back-door into The Machine in order to gain access to these numbers—but Finch is reluctant, resulting in a fallout between the duo. Not long after, Ingram is killed in a bomb explosion. When Finch goes back to check Ingram’s contingency plan, he finds that Ingram’s number had been given by The Machine, indicating his imminent danger. Stricken by survivor’s guilt, Ingram’s death, having to fake his death and sacrifice a budding romance, a lifelong disability—Finch decides to honour Ingram’s memory by secretively working on the Machine’s irrelevant numbers.

As Root, a fanatic of the perfect, flawless Machine’s design later notes:

Root: “How badly did you have to break [The Machine] to make it care about people so much?”

Finch: “I didn’t break it; it’s what made it work. It was only after I taught The Machine that people mattered that it could begin to be able to help them.”

For me, this is what differentiates Person of Interest from other AI-themed shows and films—the Machine is not a benevolent being, but it certainly is not evil. It has foresight and shows almost human traits of utilitarianism in which it orders the team to kill a congressman in order to stop Samaritan, a rival AI, from coming online. Finch, who cannot fathom the idea of a kill order, sticks by his strict deontological code and pleads with the team to disobey The Machine. Where is the line drawn, for Person of Interest’s Machine? If it can see ahead and spot danger, then surely killing the congressman from a utilitarian point of view is justified? After all, The Machine was right: they didn’t kill the congressman, and this allowed Samaritan into the world. And even deeper into that—how human of an issue does this become, now? Because The Machine was acting out of humanity’s best interests—in keeping Samaritan offline, they had to kill the congressman, but Finch couldn’t allow that kill order. But just how far can a Machine go? Finch, in this episode, does make a very important point. No matter how much Finch teaches The Machine of morality and humanity—how many lives could The Machine sacrifice in order to maintain its core objective? The Machine saw ahead and arguably instilled very utilitarianism values by issuing this kill order: that the end justifies the means. Isn’t that a very human ethical argument to have, especially when you’re considering this is about a non-human being?

With regards to Root, it’s largely ingrained in Root’s character that her belief in The Machine was overly-zealous—she almost saw the Machine as a God—she sees no flaw in the beautiful code of The Machine. When we first truly meet Root, she’s disillusioned by humanity. She says: “One day, I realized all the dumb, selfish things people do… it’s not our fault. No one designed us. We’re just an accident, Harold. We’re just bad code.”

Though both have hugely changed over the course of these seasons, Root and Finch's ethical standpoints don't exactly add up--but they're both absolute geniuses. What kind of compromise will they come up with to fight back against Samaritan? To find Shaw?
Though both have hugely changed over the course of these seasons, Root and Finch’s ethical standpoints don’t exactly add up–but they’re both absolute geniuses. What kind of compromise will they come up with to fight back against Samaritan? To find Shaw?

For Root, an expert hacker and tech-genius, she sees freeing The Machine as her ultimate goal: because she can’t see beyond humanity as simple ‘bad’ code’. Yet Root’s arc has been arguably one of the most moving, drastic ones on the show. As she integrates more with the team, completes missions for The Machine and forges relationships with the gang, it’s the episode ‘Root Path (/)’ that serves as the pivotal point. Root meets Cyrus Wells and vows to protect him, only to find that once he’d been a successful businessman—until a rival business hired a certain hacker to assassinate his two colleagues. Cyrus becomes disenchanted by the prospect of money, donating it all and taking up a low-level job as a janitor. In this episode Root is haunted by the guilt of her part in Cyrus’ fate, yet she cannot prioritize him above the super-powered chip Decima has acquired in order to power Samaritan. Ultimately, Root comes back to assist Reese and Fusco in saving Cyrus—the first steps of her almost learning humanity, ironically, from The Machine. To cement this, she says before she leaves, earnestly: “You think I don’t care about people, Harold? I’m doing all of this to save you.”

However, for all of the gang’s heroic deeds in solving the perp/victim cases—as well as fighting the sheer evil Team Samaritan—Finch cannot bring himself to look upon his own creation as benevolent. In this striking and thought-provoking conversation, Root, Shaw and Finch discuss an all-powerful AI’s incapability:

Finch: What if, one day, a friendly AI decides to end world hunger by killing enough people off of the planet that there would never again be a shortage of food? It would have fulfilled its goal, but it doesn’t exactly sound like it has our best interests at heart.

Root: Your machine would never do that.

Finch: You don’t know that, Ms. Groves. To say that a machine is benevolent doesn’t make it so. It just makes you blind to the reality.

Shaw: Which is?

Finch: That our moral system will never be mirrored by theirs because of the very simple reason that they are not human.

It’s an eternal struggle for Finch, who had initially taken upon irrelevant numbers to honour Ingram’s memory—but throughout all seasons, he tries to distant himself from The Machine for fear of getting too attached or reliant on it.  For all of the struggles Finch has faced regarding The Machine, it is most emotionally telling in ‘Asylum’ where the Machine tells Finch, “You are wrong, Harold. You are not interchangeable. I failed to save Sameen. I will not fail you now”—and in the next episode, engages in an emotive exchange with Finch as Reese defends them from Samaritan operatives on the outside:

The Machine: [on a Laptop screen] Father. I am sorry. I failed you.

Finch: We haven’t failed yet.

The Machine: I didn’t know how to win. I had to invent new rules.

Finch: You had an impossible challenge. One I never programmed you for.

The Machine: I thought you would want me to stay alive. Now you are not sure.

Finch: That’s not true…

The Machine: If you think I have lost my way, maybe I should die. I will not suffer.

Finch: You were my creation. I can’t let—I can’t let you die.

The Machine: If I do not survive, thank you. For creating me.

It is such a mess of impossible morality regarding the creation of AIs. After all, as Bostrom mentioned in the TED talk—will a fully developed Machine still try to preserve humanity’s best interests at heart—or its own values? With The Machine needing to be rebuilt in season five, one can only ponder what influence the rest of the team will have in this. Root, whose faith in humanity has been restored by the team and notably Shaw, and Reese—who has suffered so much—would they want The Machine to be more vicious, efficient and aggressive in the future, both to avenge their personal losses but also to create a Machine capable of fighting an incredibly powerful Samaritan?

Shaw's a very important figure in this and her return will shake the team up--both emotionally, and possibly with the mission of defeating Samaritan.
Shaw’s a very important figure in this and her return will shake the team up–both emotionally, and possibly with the mission of defeating Samaritan.

Shaw—however she may come back—might. She arguably has, in my opinion, one of the best and consistent moral compasses (that’s a whole other argument—please don’t get me waffling about ethics, you’ll want to beat me up) on the show yet she challenges Finch whilst Samaritan runs a peaceful NYC. Why not be that efficient? Look at what it’s doing now. Look at how peaceful and crime-less it is. She’s someone who can see from both sides of the equation—a good and bad thing I guess, and I suppose she will only glimpse a closer (and nastier) side to Samaritan with her ordeal in their hands. Only time will tell, but this surely remains the most exciting, clever and topical story told on television, especially in regards to artificial intelligence.


It’s very easy to split the two ASI’s into good versus evil, with The Machine being good and Samaritan being evil—but it just isn’t that easy. They started with the same base code. Finch’s friend Arthur at MIT had created pretty much the same hardware Finch essentially copied off, in order to create The Machine. So from its very roots, if we look at it simplistically, and before they were brought into activation, The Machine and Samaritan were at equal-pegging.

And then everything changed.

Greer heads the shady Decima Technologies, utilising the NSA feeds for Samaritan's gain.
Greer heads the shady Decima Technologies, utilising the NSA feeds for Samaritan’s gain.

The shady technology company, Decima, headed by a former MI6 agent and all-round untrustworthy slimeball Greer (played excellently by John Nolan) steal the drives from Arthur’s safe box before Finch even got the chance to destroy them. With the hardware now in Decima’s hands, they can go about business in the shadows, acquiring bits of technology such as hardware to power their generators, super-powered chips that can process much quicker than The Machine can, and essentially set Samaritan free. The thing that distinguishes Samaritan from The Machine is that it’s an open system vulnerable to targets, whereas The Machine is closed.

But this is where I think humanity ultimately comes in. Harold ‘broke’ The Machine in order to teach it strict morality; for it to care for human lives and not assign value to them. Greer, on the other hand, reminds me a little of Root when she first entered the show—Greer is happy to let Samaritan do whatever it likes, because Greer believes Samaritan will save the world. Given Greer’s flashbacks and his betrayal whilst working as a secret service operative, it’s clear—from many of Greer’s quotes, to be honest—that he wants a world of utter transparency, where people are ‘good’ and almost…’obedient’—and it is so far away from the notion of free will that it’s worrying. It also makes me wonder: has Greer ever considered the possibility that he’s simply Samaritan’s pawn? Like Harold’s quotes above—yes, The Machine is considered ‘the better guy’ than Samaritan, but Harold’s also convinced that once [Root] dies, she’d get dropped like a hot potato. That The Machine doesn’t care (status rendering post-‘YHWH’). Samaritan cannot operate alone—not yet—it’s used Greer and his human lackeys to retrieve everything: all the hardware, the superfast chip, the loyalty of congressmen, a way into the CIA feeds—but at any point, will Samaritan grow and grow until it’s capable of independently issuing its ‘plan’? What is Samaritan’s plan? There’s no clear mission objective defined (not that I can remember—please correct if I am wrong!) because Greer literally says to Samaritan, pretty much, ‘do whatever you want’.

Open versus closed system? Both has its flaws--and will likely be discussed heatedly in season five. For Root in particular, she's always wanted The Machine to be 'free'.
Open versus closed system? Both has its flaws–and will likely be discussed heatedly in season five. For Root in particular, she’s always wanted The Machine to be ‘free’.

Now with The Machine effectively gone or at least glitching badly, Samaritan is well and truly on-course to win this battle between the AIs. Yes, it’s much ‘younger’ than The Machine but it has superior hardware and technology on every level compared to The Machine—meaning it can learn at a pace so rapid The Machine could never compete with it, unless Root and Finch do some serious meddling. And that of course goes back to the number of times Finch had to build The Machine and restart it—because he effectively had to cripple it in order to teach it morality. Yet he also acknowledges The Machine is not human and thus will never fully understand human morality—so is that a lost cause? Is Greer’s ardent belief in Samaritan’s pure stats and his execution of such actually the answer? When they rebuild The Machine, will Finch be quite as pushy about human morality…or will he have to sacrifice that in order to win this AI war?

This exchange between Finch and Root is from the episode ‘Prophets’:

Root: We understand the machine. We can understand Samaritan.

Finch: We don’t understand the machine at all. Out of 43 versions, how many do you think there were that didn’t try to either trick or kill me? One. And I could only bring it to heel by crippling it. I put the machine in chains, bereft of voice or memory. Now it has both, and it terrifies me.

Root: You don’t trust the god you made?

Finch: It’s not a divinity. I programmed it to pursue objectives within a certain parameter, but it’s grown out of my control. One day, to suit its own goals, it’s possible that the machine will try to kill us. We are only numbers to it, code.

Root: No, the machine cares about us.

Finch: If it fools you into thinking that you’re special, that assumption may doom you.

Root: You’re wrong. She chose me. I will protect her, and you.

Finch: The second that a bullet enters your brain, the machine will cast you off and replace you. Don’t tie your life to its whims. We cannot understand these intelligences. The best we can hope for is to survive them.

And Finch is completely right. Yes, he ‘broke’ The Machine but The Machine is an AI; it can self-learn and it can evolve. This seems to be the most likely course of action for season five. But in self-learning it could also identify Finch and Root and the rest of the team as unnecessary; in this argument, Root’s strong belief in The Machine and The Machine caring about the team is proven somewhat right in ‘Asylum’ and ‘YHWH’, when The Machine finally communicates—and saves Root and Finch’s lives. It is arguably also displayed in ‘If-Then-Else’ when Shaw, a random outlier in the many scenarios The Machine ran through, faced off with Martine after she pressed the override button and from The Machine’s perspective, you could see its mad and desperate calculations for a way out.

In circles, I suppose what I am trying to propose as a question is: is this really a war between two AIs? Or is it a war waged between machine and humanity? Is a war waged between two sectors—Decima vs. Team Machine—with varying degrees over the control of the Gods they have nurtured to blossom? The AIs are all-powerful, and scarily so; they are feared, and rightly so. But right at the very heart of each The Machine and The Samaritan’s programmes are humans; we have Arthur Claypool and we have Harold Finch. Both were driven to create such programmes on very human levels, human emotions—and Finch, certainly, has been the witness of the consequences of that.

With season five looking to be an absolute belter of a season, one can ponder: will the AIs win out? And if so, what are their intentions? What, at their very core, were each programmed to do—and how will they exact the consequences? Or will humanity fight back in the form of Team Machine? Would Team Machine ever join forces with Greer & co (now there’s a ridiculous outlier that would be both thrilling and baffling to see)? So long as Greer keeps hounding Team Machine with bullet after bullet until they’re backed into a corner; so long as he keeps Sameen Shaw under his watch and execution; so long as he remains Samaritan’s willing toy—how can humanity fight back if the only ones who can take back humanity itself are looking set to kill each other?

Will the answer lie in a tragic sacrifice of a hero? Maybe Finch? Will the answer lie in Root’s influence on Finch rebuilding The Machine, and any changes this expert hacker would make? Will the answer lie in the shroud of mystery that is now Sameen Shaw? Captive for nine months, what has Samaritan done to her, her personality disorder, her loyalty, her morals? What answers could she hold, besides the obvious one of “are you with us, or against us?”

“There’s no dead in team,” Shaw firmly tells Reese, on one of their first missions. Since then, they have bonded to a point where the fanbase lovingly call them the ‘Mayhem Twins’. But Shaw’s right—and whoever’s team she’s on, there cannot be a ‘dead’ there. But someone—or something—has to die. An AI war cannot wage across New York City forever. Even in the epic Iliad, Hector is finally defeated and whilst dragged around the city unpleasantly by Achilles—given a proper hero’s send-off by the Gods. I wonder: what is the fate of these two combating machines? What fate belies our heroes in this death-ridden battle?

Person of Interest is a show that, despite its AI focus, has always had extreme focus on the depths of humanity—from morality and ethics to jealousy, despair, love, hate, deceit, conceit…it has shown us, throughout all these years, every single side to humanity we can think of—be it via the team’s actions or words, or the person of interest case the team tackles. Root’s perhaps staple quote is hers regarding Pandora’s Box—that at the bottom of the box, once everything is aired, there lies hope. And hope is something so important to cling to, a beacon to look to, a signal to assure one—that something light, something great awaits them in the future. But for now, when the team are fighting for their lives, thanklessly and selflessly, I ask: will their stories be known and remembered, in their universe? Are they fighting in secret for nothing? Will humanity prevail as these AIs, with broadly different setups, clash? Will Team Machine triumph—even if perhaps sacrifices are made in the name of—ultimately? Or will Samaritan take it up a notch and destroy the hope the noble fight Team Machine has put up?

Can humanity beat machine? I think I have utmost, optimistic faith it will. Do you?

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