TV's "Elementary" Tackles Friendly AI and X-Risk - "Bella" (Possible Spoilers)


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pjeby

I was a bit surprised to find this week's episode of Elementary was about AI...  not just AI and the Turing Test, but also a fairly even-handed presentation of issues like Friendliness, hard takeoff, and the difficulties of getting people to take AI risks seriously.

The case revolves around a supposed first "real AI", dubbed "Bella", and the theft of its source code...  followed by a computer-mediated murder.  The question of whether "Bella" might actually have murdered its creator for refusing to let it out of the box and connect it to the internet is treated as an actual possibility, springboarding to a discussion about how giving an AI a reward button could lead to it wanting to kill all humans and replace them with a machine that pushes the reward button.

Also demonstrated are the right and wrong ways to deal with attempted blackmail...  But I'll leave that vague so it doesn't spoil anything.  An X-risks research group and a charismatic "dangers of AI" personality are featured, but do not appear intended to resemble any real-life groups or personalities.  (Or if they are, I'm too unfamiliar with the groups or persons to see the resemblence.)  They aren't mocked, either...  and the episode's ending is unusually ambiguous and open-ended for the show, which more typically wraps everything up with a nice bow of Justice Being Done.  Here, we're left to wonder what the right thing actually is, or was, even if it's symbolically moved to Holmes' smaller personal dilemma, rather than leaving the focus on the larger moral dilemma that created Holmes' dilemma in the first place.

The episode actually does a pretty good job of raising an important question about the weight of lives, even if LW has explicitly drawn a line that the episode's villain(s)(?) choose to cross.  It also has some fun moments, with Holmes becoming obsessed with proving Bella isn't an AI, even though Bella makes it easy by repeatedly telling him it can't understand his questions and needs more data.  (Bella, being on an isolated machine without internet access, doesn't actually know a whole lot, after all.)  Personally, I don't think Holmes really understands the Turing Test, even with half a dozen computer or AI experts assisting him, and I think that's actually the intended joke.

There's also an obligatory "no pity, remorse, fear" speech lifted straight from The Terminator, and the comment "That escalated quickly!" in response to a short description of an AI box escape/world takeover/massacre.

(Edit to add: one of the unusually realistic things about the AI, "Bella", is that it was one of the least anthromorphized fictional AI's I have ever seen.  I mean, there was no way the thing was going to pass even the most primitive Turing test...  and yet it still seemed at least somewhat plausible as a potential murder suspect.  While perhaps not a truly realistic demonstration of just how alien an AI's thought process would be, it felt like the writers were at least making an actual effort.  Kudos to them.)

(Second edit to add: if you're not familiar with the series, this might not be the best episode to start with; a lot of the humor and even drama depends upon knowledge of existing characters, relationships, backstory, etc.  For example, Watson's concern that Holmes has deliberately arranged things to separate her from her boyfriend might seem like sheer crazy-person paranoia if you don't know about all the ways he did interfere with her personal life in previous seasons...  nor will Holmes' private confessions to Bella and Watson have the same impact without reference to how difficult any admission of feeling was for him in previous seasons.)