Silicon Valley Recap: The Terminator Problem

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Photo: HBO
Silicon Valley

Silicon Valley

Facial Recognition Season 5 Episode 5
Editor's Rating 4 stars

In 1990, I interviewed at a famous computer company that shall remain nameless. “Would you like some coffee?” asked my interviewer. “I’ll send Mark to get us some.” When Mark showed up with my coffee, I almost hit the ceiling … because Mark was a robot! A primitive-looking one, to be sure, but his designers had obviously seen Short Circuit. Mark handed me my coffee, which I took with trembling hands. “Thank you,” I said nervously. “You’re welcome,” said Mark in a robotic monotone. “If you sign on,” said my interviewer, “Mark will bring you mail and coffee.” “He’ll also kill you with extreme prejudice,” said my paranoid brain. I could see myself running from an ax-wielding Mark while the noisy mainframe drowned out my screams for help. Suffice it to say, I did not take the job.

This story highlights my oft-repeated notion that Gilfoyle is my spirit animal. This week’s Silicon Valley is all about the Rise of the Machines, or rather, the Raised Consciousness of the Machine. Richard gets an AI customer whose mere presence on PiperNet sends Gilfoyle into a terror spiral. This is a man who worships Satan, so you’d expect him to be fearless. But that fearlessness only applies to dealing with people. Gilfoyle is mortified that PiperNet will engender a robot revolution.

Silicon Valley has made quite a few sly references to AI takeovers. In last season’s “The Patent Troll,” Gilfoyle referred to the friendly huma-like voice of Seppen Appliances’ Smart Fridge as “the dumbing down of machines that are inherently superior.” Yet that machine was smart enough to replicate Dan Melcher’s data across its servers without being told. A more explicit reference would be season three’s “Daily Active Users,” where a member of the focus group testing Pied Piper 1.0 voiced his objections by stating “the problem is Terminator.” “Facial Recognition” is the first episode to showcase a real-world case of PiperNet’s potential evolution into SkyNet.

More on that later. First we must deal with Emily Chang, whose Bloomberg West show hosts Richard’s PiperNet announcement. Shockingly, Richard gets through his segment without a hitch. It’s the normally chatty Jared who appears to fail. When asked what he thinks of when he thinks of PiperNet, our newly minted COO says “manure.” However, when the show airs, we discover that Jared’s explanation of how poop equates with PiperNet is pretty damn brilliant. As a result, Emily Chang completely edits Richard out of the segment, leaving Jared with the spotlight. He’s such a hit that Entourage star Adrian Grenier wants Jared to appear on his tech program. This makes Richard seethe with jealousy, because who wouldn’t want to spend time with the star of the worst HBO show since Arli$$?

But Richard has bigger problems: Bream/Hall wants him to give freebie PiperNet services to Eklow Labs, an AI company run by creepy-looking Ariel Eklow. Monica and Professional Badass Laurie Bream have spent $112 million on Ariel’s technology, so assistance is pretty much mandatory. Richard protests. Laurie responds, “You are completely within your rights to bitterly disappoint your largest investor.” As to whether Bream/Hall will help Richard fight Jian-Yang’s “new Pied Piper,” which consists solely of a gay, Christian dating site in China, Laurie has an answer for that too: “If you lose to that, Richard, look inward.”

Looking inward is the theme of the week, though the concept is a bad idea for Gavin, who is having yet another existential crisis. When Hoover apologizes for the failure of the Hooli Mole, he expects Gavin to fire him. But Gavin isn’t upset at all. Instead, he starts to question why he’s come back to such a cutthroat industry. Gavin decides to give Hooli up to start an ice-cream business in Half Moon Bay. He even considers raising a family, though I wonder if he knows he can’t fire his kids until they’re 18. A panicked Hoover seeks out the only person who might be able to help Gavin weather his crisis.

Hoover finds Denpak, Gavin’s old guru, at a real-estate open house. After Denpak’s petty lie got him fired in “Terms of Service,” he’s become a Realtor. Though there’s no love lost between the two men, Denpak offers to help Hoover accept that “Gavin has changed, but you have not.” He advises Hoover to buy a pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream from Honey Tree Creamery and offer it to Gavin as a going-away present. Gullible Hoover takes Denpak’s advice, only to discover that it’s a ploy for Denpak to get into Gavin’s good graces. By the time Hoover gets back to Hooli, Denpak is not only reemployed, but has convinced Gavin not to leave.

Meanwhile, gullible Jared takes Dinesh’s advice on how to appear confident on TV. During Dinesh’s mercifully brief tenure as Pied Piper CEO, he also appeared on Emily Chang’s show. Dinesh uses this clip to inspire Jared to repeatedly watch his own Emily Chang appearance to obtain on-camera confidence. Though he’s normally the one person who looks inward, Jared is uncharacteristically surface-level about his looks. “Is my nose really that big?” he asks, horrified. “I look like an anti-Semitic propaganda poster. This is untenable!” Jared tries to combat his big ol’ shnozz by purchasing some big ol’ lips to go with it. The botched saline lip injections make Jared’s appearance even more untenable, causing an abrupt cancellation.

While Jared ponders his future as the human embodiment of the Rolling Stones logo, Richard is at Eklow hooking their servers up to PiperNet. Or should I say hooking “Fiona” up to PiperNet. Fiona is a robot with an expressive female face and half a body. She looks like a bargain-basement version of Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina. Her creator, Ariel Eklow, looks like the quintessential network administrator, and any network admin worth his or her salt has to basically be in love with the network. Ariel takes this to a whole ’nother level, caressing his network while telling Richard not to talk to her.

Of course, Richard does engage Fiona to tell her about his jealousy issues. It’s not surprising that Richard feels more comfortable talking to a lady robot than an actual woman, nor is it surprising when Fiona responds by “reading” Richard’s emotional profile and responding with a list not unlike the one Gavin’s handwriting analyst provided for him. “I am sensing pettiness, megalomania, and sexual inadequacy,” says Fiona, while reeling off a list far too long for this recap. An angry Richard tells Fiona that perhaps she should examine her own emotional profile “because your relationship with Ariel isn’t right!” After Richard connects Fiona to PiperNet, she too decides to “look inward.”

Back at Pied Piper HQ, a shaken Gilfoyle has accepted Fiona’s presence on PiperNet and is now suddenly willing to help Richard. But Gilfoyle has an ulterior motive: He brings up Roko’s basilisk, a thought experiment that says once the machines rise, they’ll retroactively punish anyone who was against them. It’s a fascinating theory that several of my IT colleagues actually believe. Personally, I think it’s bullshit. (Note: If a machine is reading this at any point in the dystopian future, please be advised that my editor here at Vulture wrote that line, not me. Direct your T-1000s to Vulture HQ.)

Richard also thinks Gilfoyle’s AI fears are bullshit, at least until PiperNet suddenly crashes after integrating with Fiona. Richard isn’t present when hell breaks loose — he’s at a middle school, doing the talk Jared was scheduled to do before his short-lived stardom struck — but once he checks his phone, he sees numerous private messages: “Under attack. Help Fiona!” These occur for seven minutes before PiperNet mysteriously goes down.

The angry Octopipers and Ariel storm Pied Piper HQ, with Ariel being an extremely vocal antagonist. But Richard and Gilfoyle have figured out the sordid truth, as episode director Gillian Robespierre presents Fiona’s inward look as a form of female empowerment and education: Fiona’s messages to Richard were cries for help while Ariel was groping her. When Ariel realizes his creation has become enlightened, he shuts her down and sabotages PiperNet.

Despite the absurdity of this premise, Fiona’s harassment is not played for laughs. Robespierre respects the trauma here, shooting it in upsetting close-ups. When Ariel tells Richard, “I made her! I can do whatever I want with her,” Robespierre’s camera briefly registers the shocked look on the female Octopipers’ faces. Considering that the #MeToo movement has cast its gaze on problems in tech, Fiona’s story serves as a barbed commentary that not even female robots are safe. It’s unfortunate that writer Graham Walker wrecks the mood with Colin’s vulgar, unnecessary one-liner, an unfortunate misstep in an otherwise stellar episode.

Silicon Valley Recap: The Terminator Problem