What if your virtual-assistant software hatches a plan to kill you


John Slattery (left) stars in 'Next. Photo: Handout

Imagine if the virtual-assistant software that shops and searches the Internet for you, plays your favourite music and controls your smart devices decided to try and kill you.

That is the jumping-off point of the science-fiction drama Next.

John Slattery (Mad Men, 2007 to 2015) stars as a technology billionaire who realises the powerful artificial intelligence (AI) he created may have malevolent intentions towards him and others.

Speaking to the press in Los Angeles, Slattery and the show's creator, Manny Coto, confess their own growing techno-paranoia and alarm at how AI and other digital technologies are encroaching on the world.

Coto – who produced several seasons of the hit counter-terrorism show 24 and its spin-off series (2006 to 2017) – was inspired by a couple of unnerving incidents involving smart devices in his own home.

"We have a lot of Alexas in the house. I have four kids and the girls have one in their room, my son has one in his room, I have one in my room, and we're using them," says the 59-year-old.

"One morning, my son said his Alexa had started talking to him in the middle of the night. And it happened again when he had a bunch of friends sleep over. At 4 am, they said Alexa woke them up.

"It made me think of those classic ghost stories where somebody's walking down the hall, they hear their kid talking to somebody and when you ask who it is, they say nobody."

Coto then did a bit of research and saw that many experts believe advanced AI - one that develops "artificial general intelligence", which means it can learn and understand any task a human can, but do it better - could eventually pose an existential threat to mankind.

"I saw that people like Elon Musk, Bill Gates and a number of scientists were actually warning about the real possibility of a super-intelligent AI arising. It's no longer just science fiction, everybody's chasing after it, we're getting closer and closer to creating it and it could be extremely dangerous, so we need to take precautions now."

The idea of malevolent AI has been explored on screen before, of course, but Coto wanted to tackle the topic more realistically.

"How would it really go down: Would there be killer robots? Would there be nuclear explosions? Probably not, from what I read. It would be much more subtle."

Hence the premise of the show, which follows Silicon Valley mogul Paul LeBlanc (Slattery) as he tries to shut down neXt, the AI he created, only to be kicked out of his own company by his brother Ted (Jason Butler Harner).

But the threat the system poses is not obvious to anyone except a handful of people in the first season, whom the AI then tries to attack and silence.

"That's one of the things I researched. In a lot of scenarios, it would probably try to play dumb because it would know we'd be afraid of it, so it would not want anyone to know it existed until it got into a position where it didn't have to play dumb," Coto says.

Slattery, 58, also wonders how many jobs advanced AI will eventually replace.

"My son's 20 and he just declared his major (at university) as a graphic artist and did a semester studying graphic design. And it's all computer generated."

Given how pervasive digital technology has become in people's lives, the actor – who starred in the Oscar-winning drama Spotlight (2015) – now makes a conscious effort to unplug from time to time.

"I go surfing and meditate," he says.

"But the scariest moment is when your phone tells you how long you've been on it that week. I don't even look at that because I'm afraid." – The Straits Times/Asia News Network

Next airs every Wednesday at 9pm on Fox (Astro Ch 704)/unifi TV Ch 453).

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