At first glance, the Machine in Person of Interest could hardly qualify as a character. When introduced in the pilot, it is nothing more than a plot device. Reclusive billionaire tech genius Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) tells his new partner in crime-fighting, ex-CIA operative John Reese (Jim Caviezel), that the source of his information is a machine designed to monitor the entire country for threats to national security. Finch tells Reese that he designed this machine for use by the government, but gave himself a backdoor, which provides him with the social security numbers of people involved in violent crimes—ones that are “irrelevant” to national security and therefore to the government. This is a vigilante action show, and the Machine starts out as the mechanism that lets our heroes know in what direction to point said vigilante action. However, there is so much more than meets the eye to this “plot device.”
The Machine is an artificial intelligence, or rather an artificial super-intelligence (ASI). That’s how it’s able to sort through the information from all the government surveillance feeds in the first place. With that kind of raw brainpower comes consciousness—that’s kind of the first rule of science-fiction storytelling, and while Person of Interest does not sell itself as a sci-fi show at first, and eschews all the other trappings and tropes of science-fiction, it takes the concept of artificial intelligence as seriously as anything by Isaac Asimov. The key aspect is that the show simply takes its sweet time in gradually revealing the ways in which it is science-fiction.
As the arc of the first season plays out, the Machine’s role grows. Instead of just enabling plot, it becomes the subject of the plot. The government is eager to tie up any loose ends associated with the Machine, and they’re not the only ones with an interest in it. A former government contact of Finch’s (or more specifically, his dead partner’s) is trying to figure out if she’s one of those loose ends. A shady company called Decima Technologies wants to gain control of the Machine for their own despotic ends. And finally, there’s Root (Amy Acker), a free agent computer hacker and mercenary who becomes obsessed with the Machine and goes as far as to kidnap Finch in order to find it.
In terms of the Machine’s character development, Root is second only to Harold in importance. She’s the first character to treat the Machine as more than just…well, a machine—and while she is what is medically referred to as “off her rocker,” that perspective is what opens up the floodgates of the Machine’s character development, as we in the audience perceive it. Root sees the Machine as a god, one at whose altar she happily worships. Her life has led her to think of human beings as “bad code,” and to believe that artificial intelligence’s superiority to the petty foibles of our human minds makes it the kind of being that should be ruling the world instead. Root also introduces an additional set of pronouns for the Machine. She refers to the Machine as “she” and “her,” which is a delightful touch, much though it aggravates my sense of consistency in writing this article. Ultimately, I’m not too fussed because the Machine itself/herself doesn’t seem to have any preference.
Indeed, as things develop, it turns out that the Machine is not particularly aligned with Root’s way of thinking in many areas, pronouns being the least of them, but it also doesn’t see the need for Root’s zealotry to go to waste. At the end of the second season, when Root is institutionalized at a psychiatric hospital, the Machine starts communicating with her in order to turn her into an asset. At this point, the Machine’s thought process is decidedly ambiguous to the audience. Is it motivated by a desire to see Root become a better person? Is it motivated by the desire to have a new asset who is fanatically devoted to it and will do things the other humans won’t? Is it motivated by a desire to form any kind of real connection with a human being? For what it’s worth, I think there’s a bit of all of those.
This is actually the one area in which I feel like the show errs on the side of showing too little, as most of what we see is Root showing up to help Finch and company while also pursuing her own missions at the behest of the Machine, still basically the same person she was before the Machine started talking to her, but a bit less murder-y with each appearance. It would have been nice to see more scenes and plotlines based around Root balancing her devotion to the Machine as her deity, and the habitual disregard for human life that’s fundamental to her worldview, but contrary to the Machine’s worldview.
Of course, I can only fault the writers so much for not making more of a meal out of this relationship. There’s a lot of balls to keep in the air with any decent television show, and no less when you’re trying to ease your way from a grounded vigilante crime show into headier science-fiction territory without losing a lot of your audience along the way. It’s tricky, experimental work they were trying to pull off here.
As anyone who’s watched Westworld can attest to, series creator Jonathan Nolan is not afraid of doing experimental storytelling exploring abstract sci-fi concepts. That said, Person of Interest aired on CBS rather than HBO, and was also his first foray into television writing and producing, so a little more coloring inside the lines was called for. For what it’s worth, I think the more careful and measured approach to the high-concept conceit here—that of introducing a fully-characterized artificial intelligence character into an otherwise grounded and realistic world—works in Person of Interest’s favor nine times out of ten. The humans and their more conventional stories take the forefront, while the Machine’s identity slowly forms in the background. When the Machine expresses a new facet of its identity, of its personhood, it can be surprising, but we as the audience are never entirely unprepared for it.
One of the earliest bits of real characterization we get from the Machine is in the early Season 2 episode “The High Road.” The flashback scenes in said episode show how Finch met Grace, the woman he was engaged to before he had to fake his death and go into hiding. Specifically, we see that they only met in the first place due to the Machine wordlessly nudging Finch into interacting with her because it could tell they would be a good match. And I’ll be damned if the Machine trying to hook its admin/dad (“Dadmin” if you will) up with a girlfriend isn’t the cutest thing in the world.
That’s just it, though—I think a large part of why it’s so cute is because the show doesn’t lean too far into superficial aspects of the Machine’s behavior. The Machine still feels enough like a piece of technology that its anthropomorphic expressions are subtle. If they’d jumped too quickly into giving it dialogue or a human voice or any other obvious humanizing qualities, it might have become over-reaching or too cutesy. Hell, the Machine never even gets a name—that’s why I’ve only been calling it “the Machine” this whole time.
No, interestingly enough, the friendly and humanizing name is given to the Machine’s evil counterpart instead: Samaritan. In Season 3, when Decima Technologies and its founder, Greer (John Nolan, brilliantly channeling the Well-Manicured Man from The X-Files by way of John Hurt), fail to get control of the Machine, their operatives track down another artificial super-intelligence and finish developing it into the cold and unfeeling global dictator they think humanity needs to keep it in line. Greer isn’t the one who gives it the name “Samaritan,” but it’s a good reflection of the way that he and his team (like most great villains) perceive themselves as the heroes of this story.
In this way, the Machine’s lack of such a morally-charged title also subtly reflects the more self-reflective nature of our actual heroes. Their goal is to help people, but they must constantly grapple with their own doubts about what the best way to help is—especially when it comes to the Machine. Finch designed it specifically for the purpose of protecting people, but that’s a much easier concept in the abstract than in practice. What lengths are acceptable to keep people from being hurt? Which lives take priority? Finch created the Machine for the purpose of detecting threats to national security, but the only way that worked was to make a consciousness that was paying attention to everything. The Machine has so very many lives that it can save, and that it feels bound to save if possible.
My favorite installment of the entire series is an episode midway through Season 4, entitled “If-Then-Else.” The plot follows a battle underneath the New York Stock Exchange between Team Machine and Team Samaritan, and explores the very apparatus of the Machine’s decision-making process. Most of the episode consists of a series of simulations that the Machine runs in the split seconds before giving instructions to Root, using its incredible brainpower to extrapolate the many possible outcomes in order to figure out which one will get the humans out alive. In between these sequences, we get flashbacks to the day that Finch taught the Machine how to play chess. The chess is simply an exercise to train the Machine in strategic thinking; what makes this day important, both to us, and to the Machine itself, is what Finch says at the end of the day:
You asked me to teach you chess, and I’ve done that. It’s a useful mental exercise. Through the years, many thinkers have been fascinated by it. But I don’t enjoy playing. Do you know why not? Because it was a game that was born during a brutal age, when life counted for little, and everyone believed that some people were worth more than others. Kings and pawns…I don’t think anyone is worth more than anyone else. I don’t envy you the decisions you’re gonna have to make. And one day I’ll be gone, and you’ll have no one to talk to. But if you remember nothing else, please remember this: Chess is just a game. Real people aren’t pieces, and you can’t assign more value to some of them than to others. Not to me. Not to anyone. People are not a thing that you can sacrifice. The lesson is that anyone who looks on the world as if it was a game of chess deserves to lose.
Throughout the series, Finch himself constantly wonders whether his creation took that lesson to heart, but it’s there. It’s that subtlety in the Machine’s characterization, that restraint on the part of the writers, that keeps things distant enough for our human heroes to have such doubts in whether they can trust the Machine at all. After all, they’re not watching “If-Then-Else.” They don’t see the Machine remembering the most important lesson its father taught it about the value of all human life. Sometimes I just want to shout at the screen, “You fools, don’t you see the Machine really does love you! You’re its family!” (Because sometimes a family is an artificial super-intelligence, a Dadmin, Dadmin’s vigilante platonic husband, a reformed psychotic mercenary, their snarky best friends, and a dog.)
This is a smart part of the storytelling, though, because the enormous power the Machine wields is the kind of power that should never come with assumptions of good intentions. This is the very reason Finch cut himself (and everyone else) off from full access to all the Machine’s functions, because he knew that this level of power could not be trusted to anyone. It’s nerve-wracking enough for him to trust it to the Machine, never knowing if his lessons on morality fully stuck in his creation’s super-powerful brain.
But the thing about being the Machine is that it is constantly growing and adapting. The more it watches, the more it understands, and eventually, the more it is able to communicate with its assets. Starting from its days as a plot device in the first season, only transmitting social security numbers to Finch in order to point him towards people whose lives are in danger, the Machine’s identity grows in proportion to the depth of its communication.
First, we hear it stringing together stock voice clips to transmit coded messages. Eventually, we get Root speaking for the Machine directly, acting as her “analog interface.” Then we get messages in full English sentences displayed on monitors for the benefit of the humans. Finally, three episodes out from the series finale, Root is killed by Samaritan operatives, and after her death, the Machine begins speaking aloud in her voice. It’s a memorial to Root herself, but more than that, it’s about what Root’s life represented; she once saw only the evil that people do, and committed no small amount of that evil herself, but she was able to change. It’s worth noting that when the Machine points that out to Finch, in Root’s own voice, it doesn’t attribute that redemption to itself, but rather to her meeting Finch.
“I didn’t teach you how to love,” Finch says, in that same conversation. The Machine responds, “Of course you did. You taught me to see everything. See everyone. And I do. But I see thousands of versions of them—what they were, what they are, what they could be. And what is love, if not being seen?”
None of us know what the real-world future will hold in the realm of artificial intelligence. A lot of fiction that touches on the subject speculates malevolent entities that will seek our destruction, but some are more hopeful. Person of Interest envisions a future in which the beings we create are, for all of their potency, rooted in the way we create them. It puts forth the notion that they will learn what we teach them, and that as with most human endeavors, we will only reap what we sow. As ominous as so much of the show’s religious rhetoric for ASIs does sound, ultimately this is a story that believes in a just and loving god—one that can reflect the best of who we are.