Artificial intelligence (AI) is on the brain in America right now. Microsoft, Google, and OpenAI are engaged in an AI arms race; the Writers Guild of America (WGA) is on strike, in part, out of concern about how AI might disrupt the industry; and even content creators like myself are worried because outlets like Buzzfeed and Forbes are so quickly embracing it.
I think some of the concerns about AI are overblown. AI has been around for a while — it powers Siri and Alexa and Google Assistant, and it helps us complete our texts — but it hasn’t caught on the way the big corporations had hoped. The future of Alexa, for instance, is in doubt after it racked up $10 billion in losses last year.
Maybe AI will catch on this time, but the only people that seem to be keenly interested in it are CEOs who see opportunities to reduce costs and increase shareholder value. A lot of people don’t want to touch it because they see the danger. I also assume that at least some of those shareholders are worried about being replaced by AI. AI can write scripts, it can pick stocks, and it can write code! What’s the point in shareholder value if no one is left to buy the stock because we’ve all been replaced by AI?
If AI can replace hedge fund managers, coders, and screenwriters, it’s only a matter of time before it comes for teachers and cops. The latter is at the center of FX’s Class of ‘09 and, unfortunately, it is also the weakest element of the show. The series comes from Tom Rob Smith, who has written a few excellent airport novels (Child 44 among them), in addition to creating and writing The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story. Class of ‘09 is structured like a good mystery thriller. There are three timelines: 2009 when the main characters are entering Quantico; the present, when they are working for the FBI; and 2034, a future in which crimes are solved by AI.
The future is very Minority Report, which is to say: Potential criminals are arrested by an algorithm for thinking about committing crimes. That’s a lot of advancement in ten years for AI, which currently cannot even explain the ending of 1987’s Fatal Attraction correctly.
What is interesting about Class of ‘09 is that one of the 2009 FBI rookies, Tayo Michaels (Brian Tyree Henry), is the head of an FBI in 2034 that uses AI, while another 2009 rookie Ashley Poet (Kate Mara) seems to be working from within the FBI to dismantle the Artificial intelligence. In 2009, Tayo and Ashley are friends. In 2034, they are at odds. Two other 2009 rookies — Hour (Sepideh Moafi), a closeted daughter of Iranian refugees and Poet’s best friend, and Lennix (Brian Smith), Poet’s boyfriend in one timeline and ex-boyfriend in another — play various roles for and against the FBI, while Jon Jon Briones and Brooke Smith play ruthless 2009 teachers and mentors.
I like the characters — particularly Tayo and Ashley Poet, who is so adept at undercover work that she is assigned to root out corruption in an undercover operation within the FBI — I like the structure, and I even like the 2009 and 2023 timelines. I also like the idea that what we learn about these characters in 2009 and 2023 will inform how a conspiracy is uncovered in 2034. What I do not like is that the conspiracy involves AI. It turns a compelling and grounded mystery involving FBI corruption into a less interesting sci-fi mystery involving FBI corruption.
We’ve seen that movie; it’s called Minority Report. Just because we are two decades closer to that potential reality doesn’t give it any more urgency. Besides, if AI could stop crimes before they happen, think of all the cops, FBI agents, and politicians who could never become cops, FBI agents, and politicians. Think of all the mass shooters who couldn’t mass shoot. AI is scary, and an FBI led by artificial intelligence in 2034 seems very authoritarian. So does Florida in 2023. I’m not advocating for the use of AI in law enforcement, obviously, but I’m also not rooting against replacing Tyre Nichols’ killers with traffic cameras operated by artificial intelligence or an AI device that can use an algorithm to determine whether someone who buys an AR-15 is likely to use it in a grade-school classroom.
But that is neither here nor there within the story of Class of ‘09. What’s important to know about the series is that Tom Rob Smith weakened interesting characters and a compelling structure with AI nonsense. It’s supposed to make the series feel more timely and relevant, but the show’s vision of the future feels weirdly out of touch. I’m not ready to worry about the thought police yet, not when AI still can’t even figure out that I want to text “fucking” instead of “ducking.”