New Identities, Old Missions

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Person of Interest does a reboot under the watchful surveillance of Samaritan

Person of Interest has always been a show that aims high. The central conceit revolves around a group of vigilantes working with an artificial intelligence system that can predict crime (and, really, almost everything). For most CBS shows, that’s enough to produce seven seasons worth of mediocre content1. For many politically minded shows, we might get some variation or another of the impact of the government spying on civilians, even if for a good cause. For a few bold takes, some might even consider what would happen with such a system in the hands of unsavory types. Finally, most other science fiction shows would draw attention to the machine’s inevitable sentience.

Few shows, however, would do all of this combined, as well as focus on the impact of such a system on all levels of criminal activity — violent or white collar, gang driven or personal, making full use of the canvas that is New York City. And I can’t think of any other show that, having covered everything I’ve mentioned in three seasons, would be bold enough to contemplate the existence of a second artificial intelligence system entirely opposed to the original and allow it room to play.

Enter the Panopticon

And that’s the state where we begin season four of Person of Interest. Samaritan has launched, and while the company behind this system is ostensibly providing valuable intelligence using the amount of data that it is receiving from the NSA, it is also trying very hard to remove competing systems that might reduce its monopoly on the world’s information. Systems like the Machine, and the four people in the world who know about it. It’s quite the reversal to see Harold, John and Shaw under threat of constant surveillance, with little they can do that Samaritan cannot see. From exploiting their ability to observe everyone, the Machine Gang is now under observation from everywhere, stuck in their own panopticon2.

Nobody on the team quite enjoys having to hide, of course. As Harold mentions midway through the episode, the identities they have been forced to assume are necessary for survival, the only blind spot that Samaritan currently has. Of course, as Reese also points out, in many ways being able to express yourself, being able to actually do the things that provide meaning to you, is actually what survival means - we aren’t really living when we are forced into another identity. It’s an interesting point to consider, especially in light of the recent shift by real world companies like Google3 and Facebook towards identity consolidation and de-anonymization. If everything we do is recorded, and there is a necessity to present a public persona through our online accounts (and there always is - we might not have Samaritan on our backs, but society serves almost the same function), do we actually lose some of who we really are?

While Harold, John and Sam struggle to remain themselves as they conform to the reality of Samaritan, the owners of Samaritan are ironically trying to hide themselves as well. Decima Technologies4 no longer exists, which begs the question (as our ass-covering Senator realizes), what exactly is happening with the NSA data that Decima was receiving? Greer is able to mollify the government by continuing to provide the intelligence they ask for, but the message is clear - if you trust public data in a private entity, you lose the accountability (limited as it may be) that exists for the government. As we move towards more and more public-private partnerships in real life (e.g. Palantir5, SpaceX), it’s another ominous potential concern. Part of what makes this show so great is how deftly it can integrate real risks into the story of the episode.

The Number

The main thrust of the episode is a seemingly random case that the Machine finally drags our protagonists into after some unknown period of hiding. A retail electronics shop owner has been somewhat coerced into making a custom communications network for a gang called the Brotherhood as they’re looking to cover up their communications. The owner tries to end his contract by killing the point of contact, but Reese foils this plan, so the Brotherhood go after the owner’s son. While Reese and Shaw try to covertly rescue the son, Harold helps implement the network as an emergency solution just in case. As it turns out, beyond saving some lives, the Machine intended for this network to be set up, because it also creates a communication channel that’s not monitored by Samaritan.

In between, we had some nice character moments as well. The class lecture on the Ethics of High Frequency Decision Making was an interesting touch, and possibly an interesting bit of foreshadowing. We can see that Harold has lost some faith in the Machine after last season and his life/death calculations this episode, and it’ll be interesting to see the impact of the relationship between him and the Machine as he squares the good that he is driven to do with the unintended consequences of the tool he built to do so. The theme of having to make a decision where there are no good choices permeates heavily throughout this show — there are always tradeoffs.

The Samaritan Threat

If there’s a single major disappointment in this episode, it’s the (rather easily available) existence of this solution to Samaritan’s tracking. While the solution is technically brilliant6 (using old unused VHF antennas to create a decentralized mesh network is exactly the right solution to overcome a centralized surveillance system) it feels unearned as far as the story is concerned. I would have liked to see further impact of Samaritan’s invasion of privacy, or the ironies of the situation that Harold and Reese were in. Instead, Person of Interest created a deliciously difficult situation and solved it in an episode. Now, this show moves fast, so I give it some trust as to the rushed nature of this development, but for now it still ranks as a disappointment.

Got to say, though, looking forward: I wonder how exactly Samaritan will ever find the Machine Gang. The cover identity bug that Root planted into Samaritan seems to be working wonderfully, but we already see it analyzing conversations and flagging suspicious events. The mesh network will certainly make it harder for Samaritan, but AIs in this show get smarter, and if the Machine can deduce the existence of a mesh network, it’s possible that Samaritan can as well, even if it can’t tap into it. There’s a showdown waiting to happen here, and when Person of Interest explodes, shit goes down.

Stray Observations

  • This show remains amazing at the small character scenes. Loved the interactions between Root and Shaw, Root and Harold, and Harold and John.

  • Elias is back! He’s always been a great character but now that I also know him as Keith Mars I enjoy his screen time even more. Luckily he’ll be around this season.

  • Root, interestingly, is the only member of the Machine Gang that doesn’t appear have a public facing identity. I wonder how she’s avoiding Samaritan.

  • There were also lots of interesting similarities between Root and Greer. Both are almost entirely dependent on the machines they follow. Of course, Greer seems more like a techno-anarchist looking for a profit, whereas Root’s almost a religious convert.

  • The Brotherhood Gang will come back later — there was a big tip off from Elias that Dominic is someone important, and episode four of this season is called “Brotherhood”.

  1. It will be interesting to compare this show with the Minority Report show that’s coming, given the shared central conceit. 

  2. As always, this show has clever titles (and great music) that tie in with the themes of the episode. 

  3. Disclosure: I work for Google. 

  4. I’d still like to know who would ever decide to trust a company literally named DECIMA TEchnologies. That’s not a friendly company. 

  5. My flatmate who works for Palantir will probably want me to point out here that Palantir doesn’t actually receive any data, just sells custom software to the people who already have the data. Still, it’s a step in the same direction. 

  6. Have to give kudos to the team for coming up with this. Unlike most technology shows, the creators behind Person of Interest give a shit about technology.