Mind Matters News and Analysis on Natural and Artificial Intelligence
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Characters on the show Travelers with their guns drawn
Publicity still from imdb.com

A Mind Matters Review: Travelers Portrays AI As A Benevolent God

AI can even heal miraculously, but there is a price to be paid…

In the Travelers’ (2016– ) version of the future, as so often in sci-fi, society has crumbled and humanity is near extinction. Under the guidance of the Director, an artificial superintelligence, the “traveler” program offers the hope of altering the past to forestall doom. But this Netflix original series features a slight departure from the staples of AI and time travel in a post-apocalyptic future: Rather than transporting a whole human being, the Director transfers only the consciousness of the traveler from the future into the body of a host in the 21st century. Only hosts whose lives were moments from ending, according to the historical record, are chosen to be replaced by the travelers, who are transported to the past in teams of five.

The show centers around a team of travelers led by FBI special agent Grant MacLaren (who is expected to die in the line of duty). Through the three seasons so far, MacLaren’s team has performed missions for the Director to ensure the completion of “the grand plan” (the salvation of future humanity by altering world-changing events of the past).

Season 3 seems like a good time to weigh in on the show’s overall audience appeal, level of materialist dogmatism, and vision of the future of AI.

Overall, Travelers is a great show, reminiscent of 12 Monkeys (1995), in which a convict is sent back to find out more about the manmade virus that killed most of Earth’s human population. The team dynamic, the different roles assigned to the travelers, and the diversity of the lives they assume keeps the “team saving the world” sci-fi trope a compelling narrative.

By its very nature, sci-fi cannot be completely realistic. It’s a window into what could be. However, most sci-fi I’ve seen occasionally strays into absurdities while breaking the wall between the fantasy and the future. Despite some of its more believable concepts, Travelers does have its fair share of “what in the…?” moments. Digitizing a human consciousness and transporting it to the past to replace another person’s consciousness seems far less believable than, say, creating a wormhole in order to send people to the past. That said, for its intriguing narrative and setup alone, I would recommend Travelers to anyone who loves time-travel.

Before moving on, I found one episode in particular troubling. After MacLaren learns that his wife is five months pregnant (something strictly forbidden for travelers), he appeals to the team’s medic Marci for help. Marci quickly replies, “It will probably be best if you took it to a clinic, the procedure is safe; even at this stage.” MacLaren sighs, “She’s going through with it, it’s her decision to make” to which Marci interjects “Well, talk her out of it!”. I found this dialogue to be deeply disturbing. Yes, it is her choice, but call it what it is; it’s her choice to legally murder an innocent child. In this twisted worldview, the baby doesn’t get a choice or have the right to life. But if wanted, she matters all of sudden. And there is no reasonable doubt of what we are talking about here.

According to Web MD, “In the second trimester of pregnancy—months 4, 5, and 6—your baby’s fingers and toes are well-defined. His eyelids, eyebrows, eyelashes, nails, and hair are formed, and teeth and bones are becoming denser. Your baby can even suck his or her thumb, yawn, stretch, and make faces.” While Travelers doesn’t force-feed a leftist political agenda (Magicians, season 3 comes to mind on that score), it’s not shy about making clear that a better future includes abortion.

Season 2 trailer. Season 3 trailer.

In the first episode of Travelers season 3, we glimpse the show’s more philosophical perception of AI in the future. While waiting to give the order to take down MacLaren and his team, the director of the FBI (who knows about the travelers) listens to a story told by agent Joanne Yates (who will become more important later in the season). The Director (from the future) had been in contact with Yates. Speaking through her dying mother, the Director had relayed a message intended for the FBI director: “…tell him, the bargain he made that autumn morning was not with his god, but with me”. The Director is referring to a moment in which the director of the FBI was moments away from losing his only daughter to cancer. As he prepared for the worst, the Director spoke through the dying daughter and made a deal, “I will save her life, but there will come a day of reckoning.” And, just like that, her cancer was gone and she was healed.

Up until this point the level of materialist dogmatism was quite low on the scale. A few episodes glorified the creation of the Director and his seeming omniscience in a religious way. However, these weren’t necessarily over the top. When it comes to this scenario, however, the dogmatism skyrockets. It’s more than just a “next step towards evolution” ordeal or “they are a higher form of life” kind of thinking; this is an “AI is god and always has been” kind of thinking. My takeaway from that moment is simple, “the god or gods that cultures have believed in for millennia do not exist, but our god does; and he is benevolent”. Let me raise my hands in adoration and truth as I humbly bow down before the awesome wonder of the Director. If I were to give these particular episodes a rating based on how dogmatic they were, I’d give it a 7/10. This was more than religious symbolism or the decimation of primitive thinking as enlightenment led to AI; this was worship.

Apart from its AI religious commitments and its appalling treatment of abortion in one scene, Travelers is not a terrible show. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but if you’re a fan of time-travel; it may be worth a watch.

Adam Nieri, Program Assistant, has interests in philosophy of science and philosophy of mind, and he holds an MA in Science and Religion from Biola University. He has a background in social media and marketing, photography/graphic design, IT, and teaching.

Also by Adam Nieri: Alita: Battle Angel (2019): A Mind Matters Review If you love anime and felt betrayed by the flop of Ghost, I would highly recommend Alita


A Mind Matters Review: Travelers Portrays AI As A Benevolent God