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[Kim Seong-kon] ‘Person of Interest’ in the era of AI

We are now living in the era of artificial intelligence. In fact, AI is everywhere already, in our smartphones, laptops, and cars. What many commentators have hailed as the “fourth industrial revolution,” too, includes AI.

As AI is fast becoming part of our everyday lives, we would do well to reflect on its upsides and downsides. An American television drama, “Person of Interest,” well illustrates many of the merits and problems of the AI era.

The drama centers on a reclusive prodigy, a computer programmer named Harold Finch, who after 9/11 builds for the US government an AI program called “The Machine,” that is capable of collating all the information on those who conspire to commit terrorist activities, so that government agents can stop them in time.

In order to obtain the necessary information, The Machine needs to put people in surveillance 24/7. Thus, the series begins with a narration by Harold Finch that goes, “You are being watched. The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know, because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything.” Then, the opening scene shows numerous surveillance cameras on the streets and inside buildings. Under the pretense of serving the “greater good,” surveillance is easily justified these days in our era of AI.

The Machine can also predict premeditated violent crimes and identifies potential victims and perpetrators. Since the government dismisses this information as irrelevant, Finch decides to intervene to save lives. Thus, his narration continues, “Violent crimes involving ordinary people; people like you. Crimes the government considered irrelevant. They would not act, so I decided I would.”

Using the social security number of a victim or a perpetrator provided by The Machine, Finch traces the person of interest and protects him or her from deadly crimes, with the aid of John Reese, ex-Green Beret and CIA agent.

Aside from the virtues and problems of AI, “Person of Interest” superbly tackles an array of profound and complex moral, ethical issues involved in the use of AI. For example, how can we protect privacy from ubiquitous surveillance cameras? Should we give unlimited power to the government for national security? Can we allow justifiable homicide that serves the “grand cause?” What can we do when AI outsmarts human intelligence and attempts to control us?

In “Person of Interest,” the government runs a covert organization, the Office of Special Council. The OSC operates the AI program so that it spies on people’s private lives under the excuse of preventing terrorism. The woman in charge of the OSC is “Control.” When captured and sentenced to death in a kangaroo court by “Vigilance,” a domestic terrorist group, Control protests: “Where were you when flight 77 hit the Pentagon? Because I was inside. I carried out the wounded. I covered up bodies. And I have spent every day since, putting bullets in the people responsible. And anyone else who even thinks that they can do that to our country again.”

The problem is that she ignores human rights and privacy for the grand cause, that is, national security. She believes the end justifies the means and does wrong in the name of right. Out of hubris, she continues, “You want to shoot me because I had to tap a few phone calls, read a few emails? Then you go right ahead.” In fact, however, she is not free from culpability. Unfettered from moral obligations, she assassinates people ruthlessly under the name of national security. Thus, the OSC is no different from the terrorist organizations it denounces.

The same thing goes for Vigilance, the domestic terrorist group plotting to overthrow the government. Its leader, Peter Collier, is originally a good-natured law student who wants to be a prosecutor. However, after the government arrests his brother and lets him die in custody, he become furious and turns into the leader of Vigilance. Obsessed with vengeance and grudges, Collier kills people in cold blood in the name of justice. Although he dons the mask of justice, his motive is personal revenge for his dead brother. Control criticizes him, saying, “You have broken just as many laws. And the only difference is I didn’t wrap myself up in the American flag and try to convince people that I was a hero.”

Then, there is Decima Technologies, a private company that launches another AI program called Samaritan, a nefarious rival of the Machine that Harold invented. Using Decima and its ardent acolytes, Samaritan controls everything. It even tampers with the New York State election to elect a governor it favors. Decima and Samaritan show us what can happen when AI falls into the wrong hands.

AI can be beneficial. At the same time, however, we should be aware of its inherent problems, such as ubiquitous surveillance, privacy invasion, AI’s control of man, and so forth. We should be aware and prepared.


Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.
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