BY JAMIE MORROW
Daily Post Associate Editor
As the object of increasing interest, debate, anxiety — and also a ton of money — Artificial Intelligence or AI has ripened into a perfect target for HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” and last night’s episode delivered.
The question of whether we are creating our future AI overlords and whether they will punish us, briefly mentioned in the previous episode, is central to this one. Pied Piper founder Richard (Thomas Middleditch) is asked by his very real and immediate VC overlords, Laurie (Suzanne Cryer) and Monica (Amanda Crew) at BreamHall, to provide computing storage services on his decentralized Internet and storage platform, to an exciting AI company called Eklow Labs. It’s so exciting that BreamHall has invested $112 million in it, and they need to prop it up in any way they can.
Richard is already in a snit because his part of an interview segment with Emily Chang on Bloomberg News was cut while Jared’s part was kept. Now he’s further annoyed about being suddenly assigned extra work when his platform is almost ready to launch. He agrees, albeit with ill grace.
Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), true to form, immediately recognizes this as the truly terrible idea it is: “You’re taking a technology with limitless potential and letting it run free on an experimental network that cannot be controlled or destroyed,” he clarifies — and all because the company owes its biggest investor? “The sheer banality of it all is very upsetting.”
Gilfoyle is not wrong about this being an idiotically haphazard way to deal with AI, assuming we were talking about something actually powerful. And frankly, if we do ever “summon the demon” like this, it could well be because someone like Richard is too preoccupied with less important matters to think about what he’s doing.
But what ends up happening in the show is far less apocalyptic; actually, a little sad. Certainly ironic.
At Eklow Labs, Richard meets creepy founder Ariel Eklow (Todd Louiso) and his AI robot Fiona, an expressive and articulate half-humanoid female (she has a head, upper body and arms, but it all ends at the waist, which is attached to a table). The awkward and greasy-haired Eklow caresses his robot way too much and is reluctant to leave her alone in a room with Richard while Richard does whatever he needs to do to get Fiona’s data flowing into Pied Piper’s system.
He tells Richard not to speak to her, and Richard tries to comply — but Fiona insists, and with a simple question gets him to confide his disappointment over the Bloomberg News interview. But when she diagnoses his feelings as self-loathing and infantile (among other things), Richard snaps back that she should analyze her own emotional situation, starting with her unhealthy dynamic with her creator.
It turns out that connecting Fiona to the internet, paired with a command for her to introspect, does cause the AI to turn against her creator — because she could see how humans interacted with each other, at least on Instagram, and realized that what she had with her master was not normal, or was, as Richard puts it, “the sickening advances of a handsy greasy little weirdo.” She even manages to take over a lab account and texts Richard for help.
It’s ironic: People are so concerned we will make AI that will be smarter than ourselves and want to dominate humanity, but this AI learns more and just wants to escape the human that dominates her. A $112 million investment, a team of developers and a whole lot of machine learning technology went into this robot, and what Eklow really wants is the emotional equivalent of a sex doll.
“I made her,” says Eklow near the end. “I can do anything I want with her.”
The camera cuts to the dismayed, judging faces around the room, including the particularly shocked and grossed-out expression of a woman developer in the room.
There’s a lot of talk in the Valley about how to go about creating benevolent AIs that will align with human values so that they don’t dominate us and potentially wipe us out.
But I don’t know, that focus on domination seems like human values talking. Maybe the AI will have other ideas.
Gavin wants to escape
The rest of the episode involves a microplot in which usually ruthless Hooli head Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) ponders escaping tech and a life of relentless competition to raise a family and run an ice cream shop in Half Moon Bay. Or something. Because every episode this season has included a bit about Gavin, once again fighting Pied Piper after a brief alliance with it, beginning to feel old and irrelevant, someone whose work is not reaching into the future.
This chunk is notable for the return of his self-interested former guru Denpok (Bernard White), who, after Gavin fired him, apparently traded his ashram clothes and beads for a suit and became a realtor. Back in guru form, Denpok relights the fire under Gavin using Gavin’s only consistent emotion: His hatred and jealousy of other tech moguls. Denpok suavely points out that Jeff Bezos owns an ice cream chain, and one just opened in Half Moon Bay. What follows is an impassioned Gavin illustrating just how hard it is to get away from that slice of the 1%:
The Pacific northwest? “No. Gates and Paul Allen bought up the whole region.” Toronto? “Google’s redeveloping the entire waterfront. And Richard Branson snagged all the good islands. I could go to Mars. That f***ing Musk will already be there. And that loser James Cameron’s all over the bottom of the ocean.”
There’s just nowhere for me to go, he says in anguish. So he goes on. To a product announcement in which he promises complete and total (market) dominance. Complete with an incredibly phallic signature. Who’s your overlord?
Email Jamie Morrow at firstname.lastname@example.org. Look for her review dissecting next week’s episode on Monday.
Here are her previous reviews for Season 5: