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May 06, 2014

"Person of Interest" Producers Talk Privacy, Government and Corporate Surveillance, and Artificial Intelligence

Interesting interview, even if you don't watch the show, with creator Jonathan Nolan and producer Greg Plageman.

The interview begins by noting that reality has caught up with the show, at least in a few places. The show's premise -- that after 9/11, the government created an ultra-powerful data collection and analysis computer to identify possible terrorists, and this computer spies on everybody 24/7 -- seemed to just be a fantasy premise when the show started.

But the Snowden leaks have established much of this as true (at least in basic outline).

The thing the creators realized is that collecting many millions of terabytes of information is an almost useless thing, unless you have the ability to actually analyze it all. So they postulated that the computer in the show, called "The Machine," has some kind of artificial intelligence, either "weak AI" or "strong AI" (also called AGI, for Artificial General Intelligence, contrasted with weak AI's ability to simulate intelligence but only when performing a specific, narrow task.)

Incidentally, the show is currently hinting at the question discussed here: if a machine is capable of simulating true intelligence (as a computer will ultimately surely be capable of simulating), doesn't that mean the computer is actually intelligent, period? Is there such a thing as simulated intelligence-- or is it always the case that if a machine can simulate having a "mind," it really does, by necessity, have a mind?

Interesting, the show never explicitly discusses AI, I don't think. (Well, in the last episode, it was mentioned.) So for three years they've been presenting a computer that was at least "weak AI" and moving towards "strong AI" without actually having a conversation about it.

Nolan says he knows from tech insiders that AGI is being vigorously worked on, and he predicts that someone will create it in ten years. That used to seem ridiculous to me but now that feels about right.

Here are a few parts from the interview. Note that the other guy here, Greg Plageman, refers to Jonathan Nolan as "Jonah," because, I guess, that's the name he goes by in real life.

Greg Plageman:....But I think the big thing is that, when Jonah and I started this show, in all the initial interviews we were doing, the constant, encroaching surveillance state was the theme. People were asking, ďIs this science fiction?Ē And increasingly, it became obvious that it was a reality. And now that thatís a quaint notion, and weíve put that aside, I think the interesting theme weíre going to be dealing with in the coming season is the emergence of AI.

JN: Weíre three seasons in now, and the premise is established as actual fact. But the difference between our show and PRISM is that PRISM fucking sucks. PRISM doesnít work. Because itís a fucking mountain of data. Right? Itís an impossible problem.

The show acknowledged "PRISM" but claimed it was "DECOY" program, assumedly created to distract from the real threat (The Machine itself). In the lower right corner:


Nolan continues:

...With Finch trying to build a machine that can predict violent, aberrant human behavior, he finally realized that the only solution was to build something at least as smart as a human. And thatís the moment weíre in right now in history. Forget the show. We are currently engaged in an arms race ó a very real one. But itís being conducted not by governments, as in our show, but by private corporations to build an AGI ó to build artificial intelligence roughly as intelligent as a human that can be industrialized and used toward specific applications. Banal ones, boring ones: How do I lay out my factory floor to make the process of making widgets more efficient?

Are you techie people? AI and AGI are such vast concepts.

JN: Greg and I are big tech dorks. We spend a lot of time fascinated by this concept of artificial intelligence. Weíre back in soothsayer mode, emboldened by our correctly assessing our nationís surveillance state. But Iím pretty confident that weíre going to see the emergence of AGI in the next 10 years. We have friends and sources within Silicon Valley ó there is currently a headlong rush and race between a couple of very rich people to try to solve this problem. Maybe it will even happen in a way that no one knows about; thatís the premise we take for our show.


[Question:] There were so many revelations in the Edward Snowden leaks, but one was that, while many people distrusted the NSA already, its PRISM partners were all of these companies that we may like, or even have affection for ó or, at the very least, use all the time. Like Facebook and Google and Apple.

JN: The revelation was the private companies have been sharing our data with the government, right? And agreed, it was this unholy alliance, so your trust when you embark with a private company in a relationship in which theyíre going to share some of your data, your anticipation is privacy. But if everyone would step back for a second and think about how fucked up it is that everyone trusts Mark Zuckerberg, everyone trusts the Google guys. But itís like, donít let the government see any of that shit! Itís like, Guys, are you fucking kidding? These are publicly traded companies with management teams who are, because of the bizarre and somewhat outdated jurisprudence when it comes to shareholder rights in the corporate environment, they have no fucking obligation to their customers or to their employees; they only have obligations to their shareholders. Theyíre literally coupled to a stock market that is itself increasingly run by artificial intelligence. This is where the whole thing spins into a fucking bowl of fuckiní disaster. You have a stock market that is increasingly dominated by microtransactions, high-frequency trading conducted by fucking computers that have parameters built into them. That value determines entirely the value of these companies into which we have poured our private thoughts, feelings, associations. Tally all that up and frankly, while Iím not terribly happy about the government having this information, at the very least thatís sort of the Social Contract we entered into when we allowed the government to have police powers domestically. But why is anyone more comfortable with anyone having this information than the head of the NSA? And the reason is they have better fucking PR. They have cute names. And theyíre friendly and shiny and happy. But that information is for sale. Itís hard to imagine Facebook being bought out by a, not to sound jingoistic, but by a foreign-held corporation. But who the fuck owns MySpace?

Justin Timberlake?

JN: I donít know who owns MySpace. Itís still probably Fox, right? [No, they sold it a couple of years ago to some other company. -- ace] Fox at some point is going to off-load that to the Chinese. And what happens to that information? Itís a real problem. Weíre more comfortable with the idea of private corporations who have no allegiance to anyone, and who we canít drag in front of Congress because weíve signed an end-user license agreement where weíve given away all our rights to this information. But this is information that absolutely can be used to control you.

GP: Weíre hilarious hypocrites; we love our Gmail.

JN: All my shitís in the cloud!

GP: We assume, Well, itís relatively benign, and we have no historical precedent for it, until the next Hoover steps up and says, ďThank you for all this fantastic information.Ē It may be that diabolical fuckhead in the government, or it could be a private enterprise guy who says, ďOK, itís now my chance to leverage this in a huge way.Ē We just havenít seen it yet. But to have your entire music library, but also something tracking you at all times ó all your taste is readily available, like Jonah says. But the thing thatís crazy is that what we assume is that it can be contained, or we assume that the nation-state has our best interest at heart, or we assume that the private corporations have our best interest at heart.

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posted by Ace at 06:51 PM

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