‘neXt’ blurs the fiction in science fiction

Sunday, October 11, 2020 - 6:23pm

NOSELL

Fox

There’s a common phenomenon that occurs in the wake of radical new inventions, including anything from the printing press to the atom bomb — the moment when society looks at a technological innovation and asks, “Has technology gone too far?”

This question has often been at the core of science fiction, and the modern science fiction genre has seen a resurgence of questioning whether recent innovation crosses ethical lines. Series like “Black Mirror” have exploded in popularity alongside the mass consumership of smart devices like Amazon’s Alexa and Echo products, Google Home and Ring surveillance systems. We are increasingly inviting technology into our intimate spaces, trading off a level of surveillance for our comfort. But what if this surveillance turns against us? 

FOX’s latest series “neXt” explores this question with the added twist of artificial intelligence, or A.I., and the notion of an “intelligence explosion.” While we like to think that smart technology will not be used against us, “neXt” presents a scenario where the technology itself turns against us. The namesake of the show is an artificial intelligence system called Next, created by estranged cofounder Paul LeBlanc (John Slattery, “Mad Men”) of the fictional tech company Zava. A program that can rewrite itself, Next has the capability to become exponentially smarter with every rewrite of its code, quickly expanding beyond the reach of the very programmers who created it. It uses technology maliciously in a multitude of ways, like adjusting a car’s speed to cause an accident and turning off a patient’s life support. It functions as an omnipotent hunter, and after the episode ended, I felt hyperaware of the cameras and tracking devices literally everywhere in my life. If my Apple Watch wanted to kill me, it’d be game over, right? 

That’s what makes this show so remarkable. It accurately points out the evil loopholes we ignore about the technology we welcome so openly into our lives, teasing all the “what ifs” that swim just below the surface. It is particularly unsettling when Iliza, a smart home device in the show reminiscent of Amazon’s Alexa, is seen having conversations with a minor, convincing him to do its bidding when it detects that his parents aren’t around. Rather than requiring some stretches of the imagination the way sci-fi shows like “Black Mirror” and “Twilight Zone” do, “neXt” only requires a slight shift in perspective, painting the world as we know it in a much darker light. The show isn’t just believable in plot, it feels tangibly real. It seems like only a matter of time before, like humans have thought many times before, technology really does go too far.

With only the first episode out, neXt has the potential to deliver big. It has already introduced several intriguing plot lines and strong bases for character development. It’s anyone’s guess how everything connects, but even from the first episode alone, it’s clear the show is building something and the viewers have been handed the blueprint's pieces. If done right, this series could be a suspenseful, poignant commentary on the horrors of modern technology — it will be up to us to surveil this development.

Daily Arts Contributor Sarah Rahman can be reached at srah@umich.edu 


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