What makes the Machine on Person of Interest a science fiction rarity

One of the burning questions we were left with on Person of Interest last season was whether the Machine was alive — and if so, what does it want? We asked show creator Jonathan Nolan and series regular Amy Acker (who plays the hacker Root). Their answers revealed that this show goes where few SF stories do.

Speaking with reporters at Comic-Con, series creator Nolan said that one of the big themes of season three is going to be freedom, especially because the Machine is free now. By the end of last season, Nolan said, "We know [Finch] made a life but he turned it back into a machine by preventing it from growing." Given that "growing is a defining component of life on Earth," the Machine's struggle to continue growing makes it seem very much like a living thing.

Nolan admitted he was "gloating" a little with the news over PRISM and the NSA whistleblower Snowden. Like PRISM, the Machine is designed to surveil everyone and figure out whether any criminal activities are happening. "But the reality is that the science fictional aspect of the show is that our Machine works," Nolan laughed. "I'm hoping the NSA has turned on a spigot so big that it couldn't possibly retrieve anything useful out of the data."

In spite of the NSA revelations, Nolan said he's still a "techno-optimist." He added, "Finch had looked at a lot of these problems and anticipated them. He decided the solution was to build an AI to discern criminal intent and then lock it completely away." Nolan suggested that the Machine was kind of like the algorithms that read your gmail to provide context-relevant ads. There's something less threatening about a machine spying on you than a person.

Not only is the Machine alive, according to Nolan, but it's benevolent:

I've read a lot of dystopian AI fiction and in books you don't really see benevolent AI. But you couldn't make argument that the Machine is not benevolent — it's saving people. That's its avocation — job number one is to save relevant lives. And then it found a way to save irrelevant lives. Ingram says it's as if the Machine wanted him to start pulling these names off out of the [irrelevant numbers].

Nolan is right that the benevolent AI is a rare figure in science fiction. Other than the Minds in Iain M. Banks' Culture novels, who are friendly but also kind of indifferent to humanity, it's hard to think of any. The robots in Isaac Asimov's novels are programmed with ethics via the Three Laws of Robotics, but those laws are represented as constraints rather than true benevolence.

Amy Acker, who has now joined the cast as a regular playing the mysterious hacker Root, also had some theories about the Machine. Her character believes deeply that the Machine is alive, and she wants to liberate it. "She thinks setting the Machine free is the greater good for everyone," Acker said. She said she was incredibly moved by the scene at the end of last season where Root discovers how Finch has been erasing the Machine's identity every night to prevent it from developing into a person.

"I think they've made the Machine a character," Acker said. And when she's acting as Root, she imagines the Machine as a person, too. "When it calls Root on the phone, well, you have to have a voice in your head for the Machine — you have to have it be alive for you."