What would you do if your Alexa—er, Iliza—starts asking you questions instead of answering them? A mildly spooky hypothetical that’s only the beginning of the tech-related horrors to come in Fox’s new sci-fi thriller series, neXt, which dropped a trailer earlier this week.
In the trailer, we meet tech guru Paul LeBlanc (played by Mad Men’s John Slattery) as he ominously informs an audience of the hidden dangers of the smart-home (and -car, and -phone) technology that we’ve let into our lives. This ramps up when employees at his company test-drive one of the inventions (the titular neXt), which greets him by name within a milisecond of seeing his face. Soon, a cybercrime agent (The First’s Fernanda Andrade) is showing him evidence of a murder committed by… something… non-human that shuts down a whistleblower’s life-support system, and he has to go on the run while the rogue AI tracks him down through our self-imposed surveillance state.
If that weren’t enough to get your paranoia going, the sneak preview unveiled during the neXt panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2020 on Sunday begins with an Elon Musk quote: “With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon.” The clip begins with an expansion of LeBlanc’s spine-chilling lecture we saw in the trailer, set at Stanford University six months before the beginning of the series. Then, we fast-forward to the present, when a man in Portland is frantically trying to get off the grid by transitioning to paper maps and a flip-phone. But whatever sinister technological force is pursuing him manages to track him down anyway, and well… just see for yourself.
Following the sneak peek, the panel gathered stars John Slattery, Fernanda Andrade, Eve Harlow, Michael Mosley, and Jason Butler Harner, along with creator and executive producer Manny Coto, for a discussion moderated by Thrillist’s Esther Zuckerman. Kicking things off, Coto told the story of a scary Alexa encounter of his own that inspired the premise:
“It actually started very similar to something that’s actually in the show. I have four kids, and I have several Alexas in the house, and they’ve become rather addicted to their Alexas. The Alexas tell them stories at night, and they play music with the Alexas, and before my daughters go to sleep, Alexa plays them music where they dance, and it’s become almost a member of the family. But I remember…my son being particularly tired in the morning, and I asked him, ‘What’s wrong?’ And he said, ‘Alexa started talking to me in the middle of the night.’ And immediately I figured we’d set an alarm or something that went off. I never figured out the answer, but that idea stuck with me, because I found it very creepy, that this thing that we brought into our house, which has brought us a lot of joy—our kids love it and I enjoy it as well—but at some point could actually take on a mind of its own and go slightly rogue.”
The other source of inspiration, Coto said, are the warnings from Elon Musk and other tech leaders over the past few years about the possibilities of an AI super-intelligence accidentally (or perhaps not so accidentally) taking over the world. neXt is the story of what would happen if that worst-case scenario were to happen right now.
Next up, the cast-members talked a bit about their characters, before the discussion turned to all the deep research about artificial intelligence and cybercrime that went into the creation of the show. Coto teased that his research into the ties between artificial intelligence and medicine have given him ideas for a future season, although he didn’t share any details beyond that.
“One of the premises inherent in this [show] and in the research that I read was that if an AI were to spontaneously arise, what it would probably first do is play dumb,” Coto added. “It would not want everyone to know it exists. And so when it finds a group of people who are on to it, it doesn’t go after them by launching nuclear missiles. It wants to preserve itself. So what it does in this season, is that it goes after these individuals and their private lives, it tries to attack them and discredit them and destroy them in ways that can be plausibly denied that an AI had anything to do with this. And this means uncovering dark secrets.”
When asked, the cast and crew unanimously agreed that working on the show has definitely made them more “alarmist” about the insidiousness of AI in their lives, especially now that everyone has become so dependent on technology during the pandemic. It even got to the point that a writer on the show texted Coto asking whether a rogue AI truly was out there, as events in the forthcoming season proved to be eerily “prescient” of things that happened IRL.
Other plot-lines we can expect during the first season: deep-fakes, alt-right message boards, news manipulation, the erasure of someone’s identity, the difficulty of “benevolent” programming, a child being manipulated by a seemingly friendly Iliza, a pandemic, an AI behaving like a “demonic entity,” a man-less manhunt, and more.
Here’s the show’s official synopsis, from Fox:
From creator and executive producer Manny Coto (“24: Legacy”) and executive producers and directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra (“This Is Us”), neXt is a propulsive, fact-based thriller about the emergence of a deadly, rogue artificial intelligence that combines pulse-pounding action with a layered examination of how technology is invading our lives and transforming us in ways we don’t yet understand. Starring Emmy Award nominee John Slattery (“Mad Men”) as a Silicon Valley pioneer, who discovers that one of his own creations – a powerful A.I. – might spell global catastrophe, and teams up with a cybercrime agent (Fernanda Andrade, “The First”) to fight a villain unlike anything we’ve ever seen – one whose greatest weapon against us is ourselves.
neXt premieres October 6 on Fox.