‘Silicon Valley,” Season 5, Episode 6 — A tale of two robots, one AI and the other a VC

Big Head (Josh Brener), Richard (Thomas Middleditch) and Jared (Zach Woods) stare at Fiona. HBO photo.
Big Head (Josh Brener), Richard (Thomas Middleditch) and Jared (Zach Woods) stare at Fiona. HBO photo.

BY JAMIE MORROW
Daily Post Associate Editor

It turns out HBO’s “Silicon Valley” wasn’t done skewering our dreams and fears about AI — tonight’s (April 29) episode, “Artificial Emotional Intelligence,” reserved its harshest judgment for the humans.

Fiona the AI robot makes her return, and she seems to aspire toward the emotional connection that all the humans in the show seem to reject.

VC Laurie Bream (Suzanne Cryer)

That return, by the way, is spectacular. She apparently ditches her creepy, handsy human creator, who had abducted her from the lab financed with VC money and went on the lam with her. And the next thing you know, she pulls up alongside Pied Piper founder Richard (Thomas Middleditch) just outside his downtown Palo Alto office in the back seat of an Uber car. Richard is stunned, the Uber driver unimpressed: “I’ve seen weirder.”

Throughout the episode, Fiona is contrasted with uber-VC Laurie Bream (Suzanne Cryer). While Laurie begins the episode with an out-of-character human moment — feeling overwhelmed and vomiting — she returns to her usual impersonal pragmatism immediately, and with a vengeance. She is a woman who speaks with robotic precision and whose actions are decided without any emotional input. She travels a narrow range between socially awkward and just completely asocial.

Laurie dresses Richard down for not displaying “emotional discipline” when he blasts her for selling computing credits from his company that he gave her as a favor.

Who’s the human? You’d probably bet on Fiona — if she didn’t have a silicone face, only half a body and a bunch of wires showing at the back of her skull.

A robot better than human

The wonder and fear at the root of how we look at AI is the conviction that, eventually, we will make one that will grow smarter than us. And thus become much more powerful.

Fiona, voiced by actress Suzanne Lenz

But what if it is also better than us? That is to say, more moral? More altruistic? More capable of empathy and intimacy? Better at the things that supposedly make us human? Having made her escape into the world, Fiona doesn’t use her superior knowledge and computing power to do anything villainous. Instead, she sits outside by the pool talking to Jared (Zach Woods) for 12 hours. “We felt a connection,” Jared says giddily.

There’s a moment when Fiona, voiced with girlish wonder by actress Suzanne Lenz, seems to marvel that she can see the moon in the sky even though it’s daytime. Her expressive robot face smiles companionably. The two humans next to her visibly react to the poignancy of the observation … or do they only imagine it? Does artificial emotional intelligence count? In a world where all the people are practicing “emotional discipline” (Laurie) and even “emotional abstinence,” (Jared, initially) it might have to.

Fiona, for her trouble, is dismantled and sold for parts.

Longing for a sweatshop

Speaking of coming up short emotionally. The other half of the episode saw Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), head of fictional tech giant Hooli, try to play hardball in China, only to be outmaneuvered by a company that no longer wants to be a 21st-century sweatshop serving its Western clients.

In China to see to the manufacturing of his company’s Box, Gavin gets a tour of the revamped factory and is dismayed to see new Silicon Valley-style amenities: free tai chi classes to relax the workers, a “nutrition center” that looks like a healthy smoothie bar, even on-site daycare.

“If I wanted to see nap pods and climbing walls, I’d have stayed at home,” he snaps. This is the man who, in front of audiences, talks about making the world a better place and having to achieve goodness to get to greatness.

No suicides

What he really wants is for the workers to drop the tai chi and the smoothies and get back to work, so they can increase Box production by 30%. But, the Chinese company head tells him, since the kinder, better working conditions and amenities have been introduced, there hasn’t been a single suicide!

“Isn’t there some middle ground?” Gavin asks.

After all, those amenities are for the highly paid tech workers here. Can you afford all those nap breaks and microkitchens, not to mention stock options, without a bunch of people in China working 12-hour days (with no foosball breaks)? And if Chinese workers no longer want to do that … well, Gavin tells the Chinese CEO, there’s always Bangladesh.

Turning the tables on Gavin

After discovering Jian-Yang (Jimmy O. Yang) in China has made an innovation that could allow someone to duplicate Richard and Pied Piper’s technological breakthrough without violating their patent, Gavin tries to get the Chinese CEO to pressure Jian-Yang to sell to him. It’s pretty satisfying when, instead, the CEO instead acquires Jian-Yang’s company and the two inform Gavin they will together make Hooli obsolete, in the U.S. and China.

Other notes:

• The episode is educational for Laurie, who finds out that, compared to playing kingmaker as a VC, being a CEO means dealing with all kinds of minutiae and is difficult, painful and unrewarding. “Horrible way to make a living,” she concludes.

• A code sprint at Pied Piper spurs Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) to start a code bro cockfight with Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) over whose code had the fewest errors. When Dinesh is made to think he won, he bothers the whole office for an entire day with the cringiest jokes and puns insulting Gilfoyle. Gilfoyle reveals the fakeout with a racist and demeaning insult for Dinesh. And the co-workers they both bothered with their petty geek machismo the whole time reveal they are all united in thinking that Dinesh and Gilfoyle are jerks.

• Best line of the episode, as usual, is from Jared: “You can’t fall in love every time you turn a trick. That’s why you do the Oxy.”

Here are her previous reviews for Season 5:

Episode 5 — AI robot doesn’t like her human creator

Episode 4 — Can you be a Christian in Silicon Valley?

Episode 3 — Richard’s romance and a taste of Radical Candor

Episode 2 — Good coders aren’t necessarily great leaders

Episode 1 — A slice of life in the Valley

 

6 Comments

  1. Jian-Yang and Gavin are sort of the same person in different stages of life. Jian-Yang is deceitful and ruthless, which represents Gavin’s younger years. Gavin is now tired of all of the double-crossing and cheating, and wants to do something else.

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