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Culture Watch: “This is Us” Recognizes Limits of Machines

Let's hope that this becomes a trend of popular culture dealing with the realities of technology and its limitations

Most people do not recognize the inherent limitations of machines and algorithms. This is true even more in popular culture, which seems to be fixated on a narrative of machines becoming sentient and taking over. However, in a recent episode of the popular TV show “This is Us,” the limitations of computer algorithms came to the forefront, with the show not only recognizing the outlines, but getting the details correct.

You might wonder why a TV drama is getting involved in the technical details of a discussion on the limits of computation. “This is Us” is a TV show which emphasizes the connections between generations — how the altruism and selfishness as well as the accomplishments and failures of each generation affect the ones that come after. The current season focuses on the pandemic, and on the technology that kept us in touch while the virus kept us apart. But where did this technology come from?

Nasir Ahmed

Season 5 Episode 8 includes the true story of Nasir Ahmed. Ahmed is one of the pioneers behind the “discrete cosine transform,” the technology behind image compression which lays at the foundation of many image and video formats. His technology, and the technology that came afterward, is the reason why we can have face-to-face talks and share photos without breaking the bandwidth bank.

The scenes with Nasir Ahmed and his (then future) wife Esther started in the 1960s, where Ahmed was reading a book on computer programming. She asked what he was reading about, and he said that he was reading about Turing’s tackling of the Entscheidungsproblem. He also said that this indicated the fundamental limitations of what computers are able to do! It is rare for a popular TV show to be so technically accurate (and precise) when dealing with advanced topics. However, at the end of the show, they revealed that the show had been written in direct consultation with the Ahmed family over a conference call.

In any case, we can only hope that this becomes a trend of popular culture dealing with the realities of technology and its limitations. While fantasy can be fun and even helpful, a never-ending stream of computer-based fantasies has caused the present generation to fundamentally misunderstand the truth about technology. Many thanks to the writers of “This is Us” for being true to the details of what computing is and isn’t capable of, and of highlighting the researchers who have helped bring about the revolutions we have all benefitted from.

Jonathan Bartlett

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

Culture Watch: “This is Us” Recognizes Limits of Machines