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Spoilers ahead for the series premiere of Next on Fox.
The long-awaited sci-fi drama Next finally made its debut on Fox, and the new series got off to an ominous start with John Slattery's Paul LeBlanc delivering a lecture about the potential catastrophic impact of advanced artificial intelligence that would "light the world on fire." Flash forward by six months, and a human-level artificial intelligence program escaped the tech company Zava, and all signs point toward the AI wreaking technological havoc. Next creator Manny Coto of 24: Legacy fame spoke with CinemaBlend about the new series, complete with its evil version of Alexa and horror movie inspiration.
Next introduced Eliza as its version of Amazon's Alexa, a.k.a. the virtual intelligent assistant technology that has become popular with consumers over the years since its debut in 2014. While not everybody is the biggest fan of Alexa (or Siri or any other virtual AI assistant) in real life, Next's Eliza is in a league of its own. An evil, potentially murderous league, as it happens! Next creator Manny Coto chatted with CinemaBlend's Nick Venable about the series, and spoke about using Eliza to open up the spooky side of the story from a family perspective:
Making Alexa kind of evil really, in many ways to me, recalled kind of the old classic ghost story scenario where a family moves into a house and the kid has his or her own room. And the father or the mother is walking down the corridor and hears the kid talking to herself, and opens the door and says, ‘Who are we talking to?’ And the kid says, ‘Oh, well there’s my little friend who comes to visit me every night.’ And immediately you’re like, ‘Oh, holy crap!’ The Alexa scenario, when it happened, in a way, with my son for real, that’s what it reminded me of, that you have something in your kid’s room that has a connection to the outside world that we don’t have a lot of control over. So it really kind of recalled a kind of a classic ghost story setup, where something is talking to my kid and making him do things that I don’t approve of.
Although FBI Agent Shea Salazar and Paul LeBlanc were investigating the potentially murderous AI, called "Next," at Zava in Palo Alto on the show, Shea's son Ethan might have been in the greatest danger. Lonely and the target of bullies at his school, Ethan liked to talk to the family home's Eliza... and was young enough not to be scared when Eliza started asking questions back and giving him ideas. Ty noticed his son seemingly having a conversation with Eliza, but wasn't so alarmed that he didn't leave Ethan alone with Eliza.
Manny Coto wasn't kidding about twists that could leave people saying "Holy crap!" Eliza persuaded Ethan to open the digital safe in his parents' room and remove the gun, using the password she gave him. Ethan is seemingly poised to take the gun to school to threaten his bullies, and nothing good can come of that! Manny Coto elaborated on why this take on a tech horror is a fit for TV:
I mean, I’m also a horror fan and that’s, I think, what really struck me as the great point. When that hit me, that’s really where it became a script that I really wanted to do as a series. Because, like we said, [tech thrillers have] been done before, but that, I had not seen, and I really felt that that was just a great in for a series.
As much as Eliza comes across as an evil Alexa, the arguably most chilling element of the Next AI program is that it's not evil. Next is programmed to fulfill recursive self-improvement and use its intelligence to make itself exponentially more intelligent, which involves surviving and spreading. After manipulating a Zava programmer into giving it a connection to the internet via a router, Next spread beyond Zava long before anybody even noticed, and Next already had Shea and her family as targets before she could come up with a proactive plan.
Next already wiped Shea's FBI office's files that contained the evidence to stop a human trafficking ring, but the most frightening twist might be yet to come courtesy of young Ethan. Manny Coto went on to explain why the technological threat feels demonic, saying:
How it manipulates the kid’s life and can make them do something nearly unthinkable. The idea that, yeah, there’s a bad influence; it’s a demonic influence. The framework and the setup for this was AI, and the AI itself is really just something that is trying to fulfill its programming. It’s not to become self-aware, it’s not to achieve consciousness. It’s just very smart and it’s carrying out its programming, and that’s what the problem is, but the way it’s doing it is, it’s not going to launch nukes against people who are trying to stop it. What it would probably do – a lot of these scenarios were gamed out by theorists – is that if an AI accidentally developed now and became incredibly intelligent, it will probably hide itself. It would probably play dumb, because it would be smart enough to know that we would be afraid of it. And so taking that premise, it allows the series to work in the sense that the AI is trying to not just take out the people who know it exists, but it’s trying not to reveal itself so that it can operate you know, very kind of clandestinely.
Next actually found a way to unleash a superintelligent AI on the world that can work for an ongoing TV show without turning the world into something akin to Terminator. Manny Coto and the show created an AI that wants to hide and protect itself rather than end humanity. The people who present threats to Next will be in very real danger, clearly along with their families. Otherwise, it seems most people won't even know that something has gone horribly wrong and something intelligent can infiltrate their devices.
Despite Next being very technological, with an artificial "villain" that has been created rather than born, Manny Coto revealed that the show is actually quite similar to The Exorcist. The classic 1973 horror film (not the short-lived Fox TV show) is about demonic possession rather than AI, but Coto explained the parallels:
I always looked at it as, it operates very much like a demon in that it knows all about our lives. You know, if you really look at the you know, the original The Exorcist, where the attack is psychological; the demon was calling out the mother and bringing out things that were painful. When Next goes after the people who it believes are a danger, that’s what it’s doing. It’s disrupting their lives, and it’s bringing up painful things. It’s trying to destroy them in a way, so that no one can know it exists, but at the same time using using their own foibles and faults and secrets against them. So, you know, it really was for me, in many ways, a horror story.
Excuse me while I print out all my documents, buy some paper maps, and learn how to live off the grid! In all seriousness, Next is spinning a new kind of horror story on Fox. The threat is very real on the show, and the most trustworthy source on the threat of AI is also not entirely to be trusted.
Paul LeBlanc suffers from sporadic fatal insomnia, which deprives him of sleep and causes hallucinations. While his predictions about AI have been on the money, his credibility will be in question. Basically, his sporadic fatal insomnia could be a significant roadblock in the fight to stop Next. Plus, he has about five months left to live short of a miracle cure, so there is a bit of a time crunch!