Hey, Janet!
Hey, Janet!
Image: Justin Lubin/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers regarding Janet from The Good Place, but it avoids other big plot points.

In heaven, everyone shares an omniscient personal assistant named Janet. At least that’s the case in the hit NBC show The Good Place, which follows the journey of a woman who mistakenly ends up on the wrong side of the afterlife.

Janet, played by D’Arcy Carden, is reminiscent of the digital assistants we have today and has traits robotics experts are striving to include in the artificial intelligence of the future.

Sure, some of Janet’s features are completely magical: If you want jalapeño poppers, she can make them appear out of thin air. This is supposed to be heaven, after all. But, just as we do on Earth, in the Good Place, people struggle with ethical issues when it comes to social robots like Janet.

Who is Janet?

Janet is an android; she looks like a human, but has artificial intelligence. She comes from the Janet factory, and over the years has been upgraded significantly. The first Janet operated off a click-wheel, the buttons used to control your old iPod. Janet knows everything about you, and the universe, and can get you whatever you want. Plus, she’s way funnier than Siri.

Just check out her impression of human crying:

Janet vs. Alexa

Right now, AI assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri act like search engines. They can fetch the information you seek. Alexa can also, in a very limited way, do things for you, like turn off the lights at your command, but these are very simple tasks. Janet is also a search engine, but on steroids. She literally knows everything. Plus, she can do a lot more than turn off the lights, like build worlds (and other androids), fix sinkholes, and perform couples counseling.

How Janet learns is kinda, sorta like how artificial neural networks, which are modeled off the human brain, work. Let’s say you give a neural network a picture of cats; over time it learns what a cat is, “but how it gets to that is a mystery,” said Ross Mead, founder of Semio, a startup that basically designs robot brains. The same goes for Janet. She gains knowledge as she encounters new things, but we don’t know how she gets from point A to point B, and neither does she, really.

There’s a pivotal moment in the show where Janet shuts down. When she reboots, she has to learn everything from scratch. So like a recently designed neural network that can’t quite figure out how to name paint swatches without sounding like gobbledygook, Janet’s easily confused at first (she thinks everything’s a cactus). Janet gets smarter, though, and after every reboot, her intelligence elevates. However, Janet’s not downloading new software created by someone else. She just naturally improves after each reboot.

So what about all the data Janet collects? Janet promises to never share any of your data, though it’s unclear if she’s recording your interactions. Amazon Echo and Google Home, however, are always listening. Amazon says it doesn’t share your data, although it’s reportedly considering it, and Google gives your recordings to developers. At least you can delete your queries, which is an option that hasn’t been discussed on The Good Place when it comes to Janet.

Feelings

After so many reboots (there’s been 802 so far), Janet starts to have feelings. That’s a common pop culture trope, but also something robotics experts are exploring.

“Robots tend to become more ‘human’ in pop culture novels, films, graphic novels and the like because they’re alien to us, but we would like them to be part of us, and not a threat,” said Wheeler Winston Dixon, film studies professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Researchers are currently trying to figure out how to give robots emotions and personalities, without the creepiness factor. (It’s not easy.)

“It helps us understand them better,” Mead, the social robots software developer said. “It’s no longer a device or technology. It’s something we can engage with, have trust in.”

Right now AI can exhibit what we perceive as emotion, but it’s not really sad or happy. Janet, on the other hand, indeed feels jealousy and love over time.

Even before she develops feelings, though, Janet had a personality. She’s cheery, curious, and eager to please. She seems human prior to developing new emotions, so much so that she has to remind the people she serves: “I am not human, and I cannot feel pain.”

While she becomes more in tune with her feelings, she can only somewhat comprehend the emotions of others. For example, she struggles to understand why a character is troubled when she asks him to shut her down permanently. AI researchers are only starting to scratch the surface of this kind of 감성 지능.

Robot ethics

We’re already having ethical debates around AI in real life. The European Parliament has proposed rules around “electronic personhood.” And the technorati have argued at length about singularity, the ability of super-intelligent AI to crush humanity. The Good Place has avoided singularity, but it’s touched on ethical dilemmas futurists are contemplating now, like: Can you murder a robot and can they marry a human?

The Good Place tends to focus on ethical decisions, specifically what makes someone a good person. In Season 2 though, as we begin to see more of Janet’s evolution, it seems the show is setting up another kind of dilemma for the characters to tackle: Is Janet just a piece of equipment or a friend, and what rights does she have?

The future of AI and the next Janet

We have AI assistants, smart vacuums, and robots that teach kids with autism, but the future holds much more. “All of these things are not intelligent from the perspective of do they really understand what they’re doing,” Mead said.

And understanding is huge. After making a poor choice based on bad advice from a human, Janet begins to understand why she has certain feelings. But she’s still figuring out how to deal with them, just like the humans she serves.

We last saw Janet creating her own rebound boyfriend to hide from her emotions — after being spared from a permanent shutdown, which involves turning into a lifeless marble. We won’t know what happens next until the show comes back on Jan. 4, but for now, all we can say is “Noooo! Never turn Janet into a marble!”

The Good Place Season 2 returns to NBC on Jan. 4 at 8:30 p.m. ET.

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