BY JAMIE MORROW
Daily Post Associate Editor
Machine learning and artificial intelligence are the hottest areas of tech right now, and there are whole institutes, publications and forums devoted to thinking about how to deploy the technologies responsibly.
And then there’s last night’s episode of HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” in which AI is haphazardly used in increasingly desperate attempts to make up for acute shortages of human labor and ingenuity in deploying a decentralized internet on a bunch of phones. Until finally, the AI saves the day… or so it seems.
In the first episode of the season, Gilfoyle’s AI had been paired with Richard’s compression technology, allowing it to grow from busting the Turing test with its chatbot to displaying Palantir-level data aggregation capabilities. And there we had left it, like Chekhov’s gun, until last night’s episode.
In one of the first scenes, Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) tasks his AI with finding cheap burgers for lunch for the office.
AI makes a mess
Next thing you know, 4,000 pounds of raw beef patties are delivered to the Pied Piper office. Crunched for time, Gilfoyle had also set it to try to debug some code modules. The modules end up deleted instead. It’s a huge fail, sure, but is it really the AI’s fault for not solving the problem the way a human would have?
“It’s possible that (the AI) decided that the most efficient way to get rid of all the bugs was to get rid of all the software, which is technically and statistically correct,” Gilfyole notes. “But artificial neural networks are sort of a black box, so we’ll never know for sure.”
And that’s when Richard (Thomas Middleditch) says the AI is banned from any more Pied Piper work.
Throughout the series, Gilfoyle has been the one who is most cognizant of the dangers as well as the promise of AI and has mostly been careful with it. But here, he and the rest of Pied Piper crew have been on an engineering death march getting ready to deploy a tricked-out PiperNet for billionaire Russ Hanneman’s new event RussFest. As one shift of engineers codes frantically, a second shift are seen sleeping on cots throughout the office.
The hope was that RussFest would go well and segue into a huge deal with AT&T. But unbeknownst to the worker bees, AT&T had pulled out and instead chosen rival company YaoNet. Richard continued to push hard anyway, hoping for a miracle launch at RussFest that would somehow lure AT&T back.
Naturally, news of the betrayal comes at the worst possible time, while they’re trying to make PiperNet work at the festival. Engineers Danny, Becky and Gabe walk off in disgust, leaving the core Pied Piper team to go it alone.
Richard’s tech has failed
What follows is a bit of a red herring: PiperNet is having major difficulties, and the guys think YaoNet is sabotaging them. But it turns out the explanation is simpler. Their tech simply isn’t working at scale. It’s a major blow to Richard, who for six years now has been heralded as a tech genius for his compression technology. If only he could make his business work, if only the ruthless machinery of the valley and its greedy billionaires weren’t always stacked against him…
But here there’s a moment where all the rest of it falls away. It’s just him and the failure of his own tech, and it breaks him. And that’s when, in desperation, he turns to the AI and asks it to fix the problem.
Gilfoyle is aghast that Richard would give the AI complete access to their decentralized Internet infrastructure — which is impossible to control top-down — and let it run wild.
“That’s like asking a robot to change your tire while you’re still driving on the freeway,” says Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani).
There’s a moment that looks like doom, a reset, and then it all works brilliantly. The festival is saved, PiperNet is vindicated and it looks like AT&T may come through. But as Gilfoyle said earlier, the AI’s a black box. You give it a task, and you get a solution, but you don’t see how the sausage is made. And now there’s only the season finale to show us how this all works out. Will AI save the day, and the company? Or is the Singularity nigh?
A good chunk of the episode was also devoted to showing off the massive insecurity that lives within brash tech billionaire Russ (Chris Diamantopoulos) who wants nothing more than to be the epitome of cool.
From his flashy, tasteless clothes to his “Tres Commas” tequila company, he’s at least got panache. But then we learn that the music acts he’s lined up to headline RussFest are Puddle of Mudd and Crazy Town — two bands that were really popular circa 2002 or so.
Out in the Nevada desert, at the helm of his festival, he’s hilariously insecure. He angsts about every little thing. He can’t decide what outfit to wear and spends nearly the entire time changing clothes and asking Richard and company for advice.
And trust me, when you’re seeking affirmation of your coolness from the likes of the Pied Piper engineers, you’re in a very bad place.
• Best line of the episode: “Your issue may be insecurity masked by false bravado and unisex cologne,” Gilfoyle tells Dinesh after Dinesh insults his AI.
• The VCs always win? YaoNet’s plagiarized Chinese knockoff of Pied Piper’s tech didn’t scale either and they had been hoping to see if Pied Piper had discovered a fix. When none seemed imminent, CEO and investor Laurie (Suzanne Cryer) was unperturbed, despite the AT&T deal. “We will certainly be able to weather the storm until we reach launch. At this time it seems likely that AT&T may deem our business a failure. However, at this point I will have already made many multiples on my initial investment. I cannot speak to your backup plan.”
• Jian-Yang (Jimmy O. Yang) was hosting a “Pied Piper Girls Coding Camp” that was actually using teen girls’ free labor to run a fake Amazon review farm.
Email Jamie Morrow at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previous episodes this season