“Person of Interest” recap (5.12): Inevitable


After watching “.exe” (the filename extension for an executable file, taking on a double meaning here), I find myself pondering the difference between what is inevitable and what is necessary. Finch informed Greer that he was certain his Machine understood “that some sacrifices are as unavoidable as they are necessary.” The line set my pedantic brain to scrambling: are those not just two ways of saying the same thing?

They aren’t, of course, and perhaps it was Samaritan’s final, frozen word of the episode that reminded me of that: “INEVITABLE.” Samaritan’s rise may have been inevitable, as the Machine’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” style simulations suggested (and logic would have told us—Arthur Claypool’s machine was the second to be born; without Harold’s, it would have been first).

tumblr_o8srgrjpjn1s0vgyho2_500Speaking of simulations. (Via samsroot)

And in Greer’s view, Samaritan is also necessary: the evolution of humans to ASIs is not only natural progression but vital progress. Harold’s insistence has always been, however, that what is inevitable is not actually necessary. Samaritan is not needed to save humanity from itself; even the Machine can be lived without. Proliferation, to use Greer’s ominous word, may be highly likely, but that doesn’t mean it should be embraced or surrendered to. All that is truly necessary, for Harold, is human existence and autonomy.

This point of view has flaws. We have seen before how Harold’s ideas about autonomy tend to become, shall we say, cramped when running up against outcomes he doesn’t like; as recently as “QSO,” he refused to accept that Max Greenfield had freely chosen to risk his life in service of truth and integrity. And as Greer quite correctly pointed out, Harold has never trusted the Machine with the same autonomy he enjoys. (It’s worth noting that between his skills and his anonymity, Harold enjoys more autonomy than almost anyone alive; he’s limited in profound ways by having to stay “dead,” but he’s also free from all the tracking and numbering the show so astutely warns us about.)

This brings us to the second flaw: what makes humans so special, other than the fact that Harold himself is one? Why is human autonomy more precious than machine autonomy? This is a classic problem of any fiction that deals with A.I.s, and the better works in that category take the question seriously. I think this is where Harold’s guilt comes in. If the ASIs had never existed and humanity still ended badly, that would be an impersonal, emergent process for which he could not blame himself. That is, if he could unhappen the awfulness of now, the fact that he would be responsible for what occurred later in a Machine-less world would bother him less than the fact that he introduced artificial intelligence to that world in the first place. This is why he refers to what he’s trying to do as “wiping the slate clean.” He sees what he’s doing not as removing existing variables, but as causing them never to have existed.

While I don’t agree with his perspective, I can understand it and have some sympathy for it. This is why the Machine offers him those simulations. On the one hand, as she says, she’s trying to give him data with which to make his decision. (It makes me ache, wonderfully, that in the second episode of this season Finch had to give his Machine the gift of context, and in the second-to-last she offers him the same.) On the other, she is perhaps trying to show him that a world from which the Machine and Samaritan exit is not actually the same as one in which they—or even just the Machine—never existed. That world is not one in which Carter is alive, or Jessica; it’s not one where the various numbers the team has saved survive; it’s not one where Root, Fusco, John, or Shaw is redeemed. Those things would likely have come to pass without the Machine, but they can’t happen after the Machine, which world (however impossible one of them may be) is better is highly subjective, which is why it’s so interesting that the final simulation, the one that clinches Harold’s decision, is one of Root working for Samaritan.

tumblr_o8sst4VD071so0guco4_400Everyone in the alternate reality has extremely neat hair. (Via love-wins-exd)

On the one hand, Root is alive in that scenario. On the other hand, she’s exactly the amoral, misanthropic murderer Harold was first kidnapped by, untouched by love and untaught by the Machine. She still found a god to follow, but with none of the same intimacy and far less interesting results. As the Machine points out in Root’s own voice, in that scenario she never found Shaw; as Harold notes, she also never had to lose her. (And Shaw never had to lose Cole.)

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