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SYFY WIRE Mrs. Davis

Can AI be evil? ’Mrs. Davis’ creator Damon Lindelof weighs in ahead of Peacock sci-fi series

Look to Peacock's upcoming sci-fi series for answers.

By Benjamin Bullard
A still image from Mrs. Davis Season 1

It’s just a harmless computer, right? It just does whatever people program it to do…right? In these bleeding-edge tech days when OpenAI’s ChatGPT can follow intricate chat prompts with incredibly human-like persuasiveness, the perennial sci-fi question of whether there’s a moral ghost in the artificial intelligence machine seems as topical as ever.

As luck would have it, Peacock's upcoming sci-fi series, Mrs. Davis, is set to explore exactly that, albeit in the fun, offbeat way that only Emmy-winning Watchmen show creator Damon Lindelof could achieve. Wrapped in the habit of agitated nun Sister Simone, star Betty Gilpin (GLOW, Nurse Jackie) takes the people’s fight to the seemingly omniscient AI known as Mrs. Davis when the comedy-laced drama debuts April 20.

RELATED: Meet the cast and creators of Peacock's sci-fi series 'Mrs. Davis'

Though Mrs. Davis frames the whole humans-versus-AI standoff in comedic and action-packed terms, there’s a built-in philosophical conflict between Gilpin’s freedom-loving nun and the AI machine that would impose a soulless, calculated order on humanity. Boxing society into tidily organized spaces has to be an inherently evil trait, doesn’t it? One, in other words, that only a computer without a beating human heart could conceive…right?

For Lindelof, it’s a little more nuanced than that — especially if you view computers as obedient tools whose “thoughts” reflect nothing more than the will of their human creators.

“We’re primarily evil, I think,” Lindelof told The Hollywood Reporter during a Mrs. Davis panel at last month’s SXSW, noting that Mrs. Davis tackles the idea that future AIs — whatever their programming objectives — won’t appear to people as cruel sci-fi totalitarians, but instead as sympathetically approachable “personas” not unlike Scarlett Johansson’s “Samantha” AI in Spike Jonez’ 2013 sci-fi drama, Her.

Humans, he said, are “very short sighted in terms of, we think that there’s only going to be HAL or Skynet or Mrs. Davis. But the reality is, there’s gonna be hundreds of millions of different algorithms that we can be interacting with, and they’ll have different, ‘Scarlett Johansson’ personas; different voices…It can have the personality of a kindergarten teacher or a drill sergeant — depending on what you feel will get you through the day.”

In a parallel of real life, Mrs. Davis doesn’t necessarily force its AI intelligence on people with the voice of a cold computer. Instead, it couches its suggestive algorithms through the Trojan Horse of relatable human proxies; the seemingly-friendly “Samantha” personalities that its targets are more likely to respond to. But, observed Lindelof, it’s human programmers who put the advanced machine up to that kind of soothing trickery in the first place.

“I think the broader question is, ‘Does it do evil things?’ And the answer is undeniably ‘yes,’” he said. “Whether or not that makes it evil? …AIs are programmed by humans. And really effective AIs, they just are very good at giving us exactly what we want. So if an algorithm on YouTube is basically designed to curate videos for you that you are interested in, it doesn’t care if those videos are sending you down a rabbit hole…it can’t tell the difference between the content of the video, only what the markers to keep you watching it are.

“That’s inherently evil, right?” he joked. “Because we probably want algorithms to say, ‘Hey! I noticed that you’ve been watching videos for seven hours straight! Do you wanna go outside? — But that’s not what they’re designed to do.”

Co-creator Tara Hernandez is a little more optimistic about humanity’s essential goodness, though Mrs. Davis intentionally avoids mimicking its creators’ differing views, preferring instead to approach AI morality through Sister Simone’s adversarial eyes.

“The show is really going to be Simone’s point of view and where she comes down,” said Hernandez. “In the pilot, she’s offered a choice, which is basically, essentially, the question: ‘AI good? AI Bad?’ — So to be authentic to her story, we had to funnel that through her lens…I truly believe in humanity and our ability, hopefully, to make the best decisions for ourselves. So as long as we sort of self-govern and self-regulate, I think we’ll be okay.”

As the trailer above teases, Mrs. Davis looks to be more than okay, with an action-focused pace that tosses a kitchen sink’s worth of wild ideas at the still-fomenting evil-computer debate. It’s got a fighting nun leading humanity into battle against a machine, for heaven’s sake! — and that has to be a television first.

Catch the exclusive series premiere of Mrs. Davis only at Peacock beginning Thursday, April 20…and keep a suspicious eye on any overly-friendly computers you meet in the meantime.