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Exploring Artificial Intelligence with 'neXt'
October 6, 2020  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

It's been 52 years since HAL, the rogue computer in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, threatened to undermine all of humanity by developing a not always benign mind of its own.

The appropriately named neXt, a series that premieres at 9 p.m. ET Tuesday on Fox, picks up where HAL left off.

neXt dramatizes the way in which artificial intelligence (AI) could go beyond what its human creators program into it and develop a quasi-mind of its own.

Creator Manny Coto warns that the consequences of a computer that is suddenly much smarter than people could quickly catapult from annoying to lethal.

neXt revolves around Paul LeBlanc (wonderfully played by John Slattery, top), who headed a major-league tech company called Zava. His big new splash was going to be the development of an artificial intelligence program, a much-advanced version of Siri, Alexa, or Cortana, that could respond even more nimbly to its users.

When he belatedly realized the potentially disastrous implications of unleashing such a level of AI, he says, he tried to shut it down. But its commercial potential was far too enticing to the Zava board of directors, who had Paul's brother, Ted (Jason Butler Harner), fire Paul.

Soon thereafter, FBI agent Shea Salazar (Fernanda Andrade) learns that one of her dear friends, who happens to have been a tech wizard, has died after an accident that appears suspicious.

Her investigation brings Salazar to Paul LeBlanc, and they quickly turn into a great pair, each slowly coming to trust the other.

In the course of their bonding, we learn that Paul LeBlanc has personal problems to rival those he fears he may have created for the world. For one thing, he's concerned about his daughter Abby (Elizabeth Cappuccino), from whom he is estranged, but to whom he needs to pass a potentially life-changing medical secret.

Shea Salazar has some not so incidental side issues herself. Her son, Ethan (Evan Whitten), is getting bullied at school and seems to have found his primary solace not in Shea or his father Ty (Gerardo Celasco), but in his virtual assistant Iliza.

That one's not a hard dot to connect.

In any case, something catastrophic happens with the development of Zava's new AI system, and it forces a realignment of the good guys and bad guys up and down the chain.

The whole subject of neXt, and how some of it is handled, may make the show a little too geeky and tech-talky for some viewers.

The writers presume a viewer level of computer knowledge far beyond what Stanley Kubrick would have imagined when he directed 2001 back in 1968, and that's fair. To some viewers, though, particularly in the older demos, any sign of words like "interface" or "system requirements" turns the rest into white noise.

For what it's worth, the core plotline of neXt soon gets distilled into something fairly basic, and even familiar, spiced up by side dramas and characters who become ever-more human as their challenge becomes ever-more robotic.

And if you decide you want to watch and you say, "Alexa, play neXt," and Alexa refuses, start worrying.

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Not too many readers are likely to remember that the company that Steve Jobs started after being fired from Apple Computer in the 1980's was named NeXT. Apple later acquired NeXT in order to get Jobs back into Apple, and the operating system that Jobs and team had been developing became the core of the new, much-improved MacOS X that Mac computers have been using for the last couple of decades. I doubt naming this show "neXt" is just a random coincidence, and I hope the producers and NBC cut a deal with Apple to use the name, because they're not shy about using litigation to protect their intellectual property (or about "borrowing" someone else's).
Oct 6, 2020   |  Reply
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