Fox’s new sci fi drama, neXt, comes from the mind of Manny Coto (24: Legacy). It is a fact-based thriller about the emergence of a rogue artificial intelligence bent on taking over the world.
John Slattery (Mad Men) stars as Paul LaBlanc, a Silicon Valley pioneer, who discovers one of his own creations, a powerful AI, might bring about a global disaster.
Manny Coto and John Slattery talked with the members of the TV Critics Association early this year, about their new series which premieres on October 7, 2020.
Once you came up with the very basic idea, what was the biggest difficulty? Was it figuring out how to make a show that wasn’t just people talking with an AI voice?
Manny Coto: Yes. That’s always the challenge. You end up with people standing in front of laptop computers and watching scrolling code.
The premise of the show actually came from research. One of the things I read is that if an AI were to accidentally become super-intelligent, one of the first things it would want to do is not allow anyone to find out. Because it wanted to gain its foothold wherever it’s going before we have a chance to fight back. I found that really interesting. It would basically play dumb, which led to the premise.
neXt really comes across as a HAL on steroids. How much do you take from real world events and implement it into the story?
Manny: There are some real world events, but it’s also following a logical train. If you have an AI that has access to things that are hackable, it is reasonable to believe that it would use these as weapons. Analyzing your blood is now a system that goes through the Internet. So it could alter that. Pacemakers, our thermostats can be hacked. And I read earlier today there are actually smart light bulbs [that] can be hacked and used as a method of listening in.
John Slattery: The mandate of the show initially was we are not doing a sci fi show. The more mundane usage of this AI is the most frightening. This [AI] in the pilot gives the kid the combination to the gun safe. It’s a very simple equation that ends up with potentially horrific results. [And what] those simple hackable opportunities could lead to. Just waking up and seeing zeros in your bank account.
Manny: I want to add, I think what makes it a really cool topic is that research is coming out so frequently about it. It’s exciting, but also terrifying.
Are you legitimately concerned that this is a real thing that is happening?
Manny: To me, the whole premise of the show started because of Alexa. My son woke me up. [He] was really tired one morning. I [said,] ‘What’s the matter?’ He [said], ‘My Alexa started talking to me at 3:00 am out of the blue, by itself, for no reason.’ He claims this has happened a couple times. We never got down to the mystery. Those things seem to have a mind of their own every once in a while. We still have five of them in the house. The kids won’t let me get rid of them.
John: I don’t have an Alexa. I’m shit scared.
You don’t have Alexa, but what’s your own experience with AI?
John: You have a conversation with someone, and the next day, your phone is blowing up with ads for whatever you were talking about.
Every time you look at Instagram and you hit something, then you’re loaded up with ads. It’s obviously watching. I just feel like I’m not doing anything interesting enough to worry about it. I live a boring life where I don’t care. [he laughs]
You talk a lot about how the Internet is going to kill us. Can we talk about regular mortality for a second? John’s character is very sick. How long can this show go on with that overhead?
Manny: The illness is one that’s progressive, and his character, through the course of a season, is slowly losing his sense of reality. It’s based on a real incident. But the season takes place in a very compressed time. All the events of Season 1 take place over one or two weeks.
In everything that I’ve read, if there’s an AI outbreak, it would happen quite quickly. We are dealing with super-intelligence with access to incredible amounts of information. So there may be something down the road which could be an accommodation. There is a way that the character could find a way to keep going. But that is a very real threat in Season 1. And it’s something that has been considered for future seasons.
John: Or I could come back as my evil twin.
John, the more you work on the series, are you more protective about your actions?
John: Self governance, isn’t that what it is? Is [AI] pushing us more toward [being] isolated? If you can get a fake girlfriend and a fake priest, what do you need a real priest or real human interaction for? You can just sit in your basement in the glow of your computer screen and do everything, have all of the contact you need to have. You can buy everything. [And] you can get it delivered to your chair.
If we are left to our own devices, where does it go from there? Isn’t the government, to some degree, supposed to protect us from ourselves? Or protect the weak from the people who are going to take advantage of them? It’s the further isolation of all of us as we get more connected to these devices that prevent us from interacting. It’s like a loop. This whole show, the idea is a loop. That’s what’s so interesting about it.
Manny: We gave out Alexas as crew gifts.
John: And nobody opened them. They watched the pilot, and then they all gave them back!