NeXT creator Manny Coto at FOX WINTER TCA at the Langham Hotel, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020 in Pasadena, CA | ©2020 Fox Media/Frank Micelotta/Fox/Picture Group

NeXT creator Manny Coto at FOX WINTER TCA at the Langham Hotel, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020 in Pasadena, CA | ©2020 Fox Media/Frank Micelotta/Fox/Picture Group

NEXT, premiering Tuesday, October 6 on Fox, is a thriller about an artificial intelligence program (aka AI) that has achieved superintelligence. This terrifies its creator, Paul LeBlanc (John Slattery), who teams up with a Homeland Security cybercrime task force in an attempt to stop the AI from advancing a homicidal agenda.

Manny Coto created NEXT and serves as an executive producer. Coto won a Dramatic Series Emmy in 2006 for his work as one of the executive producers (and writers) on 24. He also created the series THE ½ HOUR NEWS HOUR, and has served as an executive producer/writer on series including the 1995 iteration of THE OUTER LIMITS, STRANGE WORLD, ODYSSEY 5, STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE, DEXTER, and 24: LEGACY.

NEXT was originally supposed to premiere in May, but due to scheduling changes caused by the pandemic, Fox moved the series premiere to the fall.

At a Q&A session held by Fox for the Winter 2020 (pre-COVID) Television Critics Association press tour, Coto explains the origins of NEXT.

“To me, the whole premise of the show started because of Alexa. My son woke me up. I was really tired one morning, and I was, like, ‘What’s the matter?’ And he was, like, ‘My Alexa started talking to me at 3 AM out of the blue by itself for no reason.’ He claims this has happened a couple times. I didn’t know what happened.  We never got down to [the bottom of] the mystery, but those things seem to have a mind of their own every once in a while, even though we still have five of them in the house because the kids won’t let me get rid of them.”

John Slattery as Paul LeBlanc in NEXT - Season 1 | ©2020 Fox/Miller Mobley

John Slattery as Paul LeBlanc in NEXT – Season 1 | ©2020 Fox/Miller Mobley

Coto says he wrote out the entire first season of NEXT before it was even ordered to series. “There is a very definite plan, but it’s really structured as a manhunt, meaning the AI is something we have to find. AI in some movies are kind of presented as things that exist on the cloud and can spread everywhere. This has to be a very specific architecture and a very specific set of computers. So it’s our [human] characters realizing they are there and then having to go after it to destroy it. It’s a lot of the lone voices in the wilderness basically saying, ‘This is out there. We have to destroy it.’ No one believes them, because if somebody came to you and said this was an AI superintelligence out there, you’d be laughed out of the room. So our characters are very much operating on their own, and it’s basically a chase. It’s a chase through the season of trying to find this thing and destroy it before it in turn gets to a place where it can become unstoppable.”

Given that NEXT is a show about cyber experts trying to fight an AI, how did Coto open the action up so that it was more than just people typing at computers and arguing with an AI voice? “That’s always the challenge. The way the show unfolds actually came from research that I had read.  One of the things I read is that if an AI were to accidentally become super-intelligent, one of the first things it would want to do is not allow anyone to find out that it’s become super-intelligent, because it wanted to gain its foothold wherever it’s going before we have a chance to fight back.  It would basically play dumb, meaning if a group of people found out about it, it would not strike in large, huge assaults. It would go after them in the smallest way possible, so as not to be detected, which inherently led to a story and a season whereby this AI, which knows everything about our characters, is actually attacking them through their personal lives and slowly trying to destroy their lives and their careers so that they cannot in turn attack it, which led to kind of a character‑based season and drama for the first season. So, yes, it was a challenge, but research gave the idea of how this series could progress.”

Fernanda Andrade as Agent Shea Salazar in NEXT - Season 1 | ©2020 Fox/Miller Mobley

Fernanda Andrade as Agent Shea Salazar in NEXT – Season 1 | ©2020 Fox/Miller Mobley

Coto says the premise of NEXT is anchored both in things that have already happened, and in probabilities. “There are some real‑world events, but it’s also following a logical train.  If you have an AI that has access to things that are hackable, it is reasonable to believe that it would use these as weapons. When you’re analyzing your blood if you’re a diabetic, that is now a system that actually goes through the Internet. Our thermostats can be hacked. I read that smart light bulbs can be hacked and used as a method of listening in. We live in a world that is surrounded by these appliances and technology that are all vulnerable and usable by something that is very intelligent. Part it is real world, but a lot of it is extrapolation, [based] on the research that I did.”

Is Coto planning to show any “good” aspects of a super-intelligent AI? “One of the things that I tried to do in the show and one of the things that I realized in research is that this whole idea of ‘nice,’ conscious AI and self‑aware AI are things that don’t even have to apply for this to be dangerous. We have an AI that was programmed to help people. It was a very simple programming, but because of the nature of the way it was programmed, it became super-intelligent. It has taken that directive to a degree that is dangerous. As argued by a number of professors, we need to be very careful how we program these things, because an AI that decides to help people may decide that the best way to help people is to plug everyone into a neural cord that stimulates our happiness regions of the brain. It’s very difficult to find a programming language that makes it clear what we want it to do if it becomes super-intelligent. So the AI in this show is actually not an ‘evil’ AI. In its own mind, it is simply following the programming that it was given. It’s not self‑aware. It’s not self‑conscious. It’s not questioning the universe. The problem is that it’s become, because of the way it was designed, super-intelligent, and so now we have a superintelligence, something that’s a thousand times smarter than we are that is determined to carry out its programming. Unfortunately, that means if anybody tries to stop it from carrying out its programming, those individuals need to be stopped in a way that will allow it to continue its programming in the best way. So I would argue that you can’t say it’s not a nice AI.  You can’t say it’s an evil AI.  It’s not being one or the other.  It was simply following programming that was given to it by us.

In a private conversation later that evening, at a party thrown by Fox for the TCA, Coto elaborates on NEXT.

Jason Butler Harner as Ted LeBlanc in NEXT - Season 1 | ©2020 Fox/Miller Mobley

Jason Butler Harner as Ted LeBlanc in NEXT – Season 1 | ©2020 Fox/Miller Mobley

ASSIGNMENT X: What kind of research did you do for NEXT?

MANNY COTO: Well, the initial idea was what I mentioned earlier about the Alexa. And then I saw quotes from Elon Musk, saying, “AI is the most important challenge facing humanity.” And I thought, “What is this about?” So I read his book, and I realized that he had come off a book, SUPERINTELLIGENCE by Nick Bostrom, which dissected the reality of creating a superintelligence. That was the first real research I read. Because I had not seen somebody actually saying, “This could really happen.” And from that book, there have been a dozen other books. There’s another great one, called OUR FINAL INVENTION, which argues the same thing – if we create a super-intelligent AI, it will be the last thing we invent. We will not have to invent anything else, and it will probably destroy us. All these books are taking the same line, that once we create superintelligence, we will probably not survive. That’s what I found interesting. These are real scientists, these are not science-fiction writers, these are people who are actually going to the government and saying, “We need to get some people together and actually start talking,” because almost every tech company, is trying to create general AI. They’re all after it. It’s like the Holy Grail.

AX: Your longest foray into science fiction before this was STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE. Did any of that help with NEXT?

COTO: Not really. STAR TREK is very, very different, it was a whole different [sensibility]. Honestly, it was more 24 that was a bigger influence.

AX: John Slattery is one of your leads. Were you looking for something to do with him, or did he just seem like the best fit for the character?

COTO: I was looking to do this idea, and we looked at a lot of different people, and his name just stood out, and it’s a very interesting idea for this character.

AX: Slattery of course plays inventor Howard Stark in the IRON MAN and AVENGERS films. Did his background there play into you casting him as an inventor in NEXT?

COTO: Not really. I knew he had done Howard Stark, I loved him as Howard Stark, but mostly I remember him from MAD MEN, and I liked that character. I wrote the pilot on spec, and I realized, once I thought of Slattery, I couldn’t see anybody else playing that part.

AX: Once you came up with the idea, how did you create the other characters? Was it like, “Who would be fighting this AI?”

COTO: I see what you’re saying – who would be the people who would find out it exists, and who would be the ones trying to stop it. To me, it became a natural evolution to create a Steve Jobs/Elon Musk-type character, who probably had a hand in creating it, and as the principal, as one of the first people to realize it’s happening, and then other people would be drawn into it.

Eve Harlow, Aaron Clifton Moten, Michael Mosley, Jason Butler Harner, John Slattery, Fernanda Andrade, Evan Whitten, Elizabeth Cappuccino and Gerardo Celasco in NEXT - Season 1 | ©2020 Fox/Miller Mobley

Eve Harlow, Aaron Clifton Moten, Michael Mosley, Jason Butler Harner, John Slattery, Fernanda Andrade, Evan Whitten, Elizabeth Cappuccino and Gerardo Celasco in NEXT – Season 1 | ©2020 Fox/Miller Mobley

AX: Slattery’s character is meant to be very ill. At the risk of getting spoilery, is the AI going to attempt to fix his brain?

COTO: [laughs] Without getting spoilery, I will say that’s probably not in the body of Season 1. But I will say this. I am trying to keep the show realistic, basically hewing to science that exists more or less now. I think a super-intelligence could probably very quickly find a cure to probably almost all the diseases we have right now. In fact, I read somewhere that a lot of the cures for many diseases might already exist, but the information is in separate areas around the Internet, which you can’t find. But a superintelligence that’s a thousand times smarter than we are, that can collate all this information, could probably find the pieces that are important, put it together, and actually find the cure.

AX: Can you talk about how team leader Shae Salazar character, played by Fernanda Andrade, balances work and family, and does that dynamic change over the course of the show? On the one hand, it looks like she’s got a good handle on it at first, but by the end of the premiere, she’s got real danger at home, and she’s trying to save the world at the same time …

COTO: Well, I think that’s part of the pull. In her regular life, I think she balanced it quite well, but because NEXT has entered the picture and is using her son against her, it becomes a real struggle over, “Am I going to try to protect my son, or am I going to try to stop a catastrophe which can take millions of lives?” So it’s a fascinating dilemma, which is more interesting than just a problem. A dilemma is where, really, there is no right answer, and that she faces, which I think is really a big part of the heart of the series.

AX: Do you think the core group of characters is going to expand, contract, or remain about the same throughout the season?

COTO: Well, I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but there definitely are some changes coming along this season because of the story.

AX: Does your writers’ room have anybody you’ve worked with before?

COTO: No, it was all new. Everybody who I wanted to work with from the past who I knew either had their own shows, or was on a show. So I hired a brand-new group.

AX: As NEXT is set in Portland, why did you shoot the pilot in Vancouver, and then move production to Chicago?

COTO: I would rather have gone to Portland. It just became a financial issue, honestly. Twentieth Century Fox had good experiences in Chicago, our directors who did the pilot, they did a pilot in Chicago and they really liked it.

AX: Did you shoot your “Portland” exteriors shot in Chicago or in Vancouver?

COTO: Vancouver.

AX: Why did you decide to set NEXT in Portland?

COTO: You’ll see as the show goes on, the show has kind of a political nature, with the right-wing character, the Nazi character, that also is in general proximity to a lot of the tech world. I actually worked there – I directed a horror film there back in the ‘90s called DR. GIGGLES, [starring] the lovely Larry Drake. And I love Portland. So part of that was, “I want to set it in Portland.” [laughs] But just for those reasons. It was an interesting city politically, and it was also in proximity to all the tech areas.

AX: Is current realpolitik going to play into it at all, the fact that the parts of our government are not speaking to other parts, and it’s all kind of crazy?

COTO: [laughs] I think in part, yes. Certainly, there’s a whole theme of the Internet kind of turning us against each other and being used for nefarious purposes, which I think can be definitely implied as to how the government, and the way we perceive the government now, can operate. This season less so than future seasons, I would say.

AX: You’re doing NEXT on Fox Broadcast. Are you getting to do everything you would want to do with the material as a broadcast series?

COTO: Yes.

AX: Do you have more episodes than you would normally have on a streaming service?

COTO: Actually, we’re doing ten episodes, not that many. But I conceived this season, at least, as ten. The way the season is structured, the way it’s set up, the way it’s a chase, I honestly wouldn’t know how to do this as a twenty-two[-episode] season.

AX: Would you ideally want people to be watching NEXT on conventional TV? Are you thinking that if they’re watching it on their devices, their devices may be watching them watching it?

COTO: [laughs] However they watch it, God bless them. I think probably our regular TV is watching us as well by now, so it doesn’t really matter.

AX: And what would you most like people to know right now about NEXT?

COTO: That it is a really frightening thriller that’s going to make you fall in love with the characters and keep you on the edge of your seat.

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Article: NEXT: Creator and Executive producer Manny Coto chats about Season 1 of his new science-fiction thriller series airing on Fox

 

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