It’s not a trick, it’s a Sony

After a hiatus of over a year and a half, Person of Interest is back with it’s final season. Which is a crying shame, because it was a serious guilty pleasure of mine and probably one of the finest examples of a terrible show that was retooled to become absolutely awesome. The premiere had everything I expected – lots of shooting, lots of blank-eyed staring from Jim Caviezel and a lot of witty banter to boot.

Unfortunately, that’s where the good ended and the bad began. Of course, PoI is hardly a show oozing with realism, but the plot in this episode was just so mind-blowingly stupid I just had to go and write a little post about it. And by “little”, I mean “a little longer”. As Mr. Finch would probably say: “Oh dear!”.

It all starts where it ends: the machine is in a suitcase full of RAM chips and batteries and Mr. Reese is carrying it around. After a bit of shooting, we get it: the longer the machine stays in the suitcase, the bigger the chance it’ll break forever. So, there’s a great deal of urgency in the dialogue, for example:

Mr. Finch:
Damage to a single bit of the code of the Machine
in its presently compressed state would equal terabytes of lost data. Irretrievable, irreparable. It’s running now on the lithium-ion backup, but if that light starts blinking, we’re in big trouble. Even then, I’m not sure I can fix the battery, much less decompress the Machine. It would take vast amounts of processing power, which I don’t currently have available.

That’s not good, isn’t it? Obviously, the light starts to blink pretty soon afterwards and not soon after …

Mr. Finch:
It’s powering down. There’s only a very small amount of residual power remaining. The RAM chips could be losing their data even as we speak.

According to this research paper (PDF), RAM chips lose their data “within microseconds, at best within seconds”. So once the battery power is gone, there’s basically zero chance to recover the machine in a state in which it could still decompress, let alone run. The degradation becomes even worse in warmer environments. Keep that in mind for later.

I was a bit puzzled by the “terabytes of data” that would apparently be lost when all the suitcase contains is a ton of RAM chips, but apparently that’s a thing since 2013. Who would have known?

Anyway, as they come to their old HQ in the subway, Mr. Finch immediately begins to open the suitcase to recover whatever’s left of the machine. Mr. Reese gets a phone call from Fusco, and because this is way more important than the time-sensitive recovery of his wonderous machine, Mr. Finch spends the entire time of the call by listening in and making conversation (oh, and checking the web as well!). After 47 seconds, Mr. Finch is exactly where he started: the suitcase is still closed and the light on it doesn’t even blink any more. Also, he’s not able to pry the damn thing open, which leads to a funny moment at least. If there was any hope for the machine being able to recover, he just wasted almost a minute of it. Fantastic.

Image (c) CBS

Image (c) CBS

Later, Mr. Finch manages to set fire to the machine (and half his lab) by short-circuiting the damn thing. If the surge didn’t kill off the remaining data, the fire surely will – remember what I wrote earlier? Temperature is important! Not that anything would matter at this point, this has gone on for far too long. After the fire, the contents of the suitcase look like this:

Image (c) CBS

Image (c) CBS

Meanwhile, Root is up to something – she’s visiting an old russian “friend” of hers, who happens to run an electronics recycling center. After some more shooting and a save by Mr. Reese (because this guy is literally everywhere at once), she gets an idea how to obtain some raw processing power:

Image (c) CBS

Image (c) CBS

Yep, that’s a Playstation 3 – fat model, by the way, which is accurate in terms of narrative. She’s going to need “about 300 of these”, because, you guessed it, she’ll build a server farm out of them!

Oh, in case you’re wondering – of course the chips are dead already. Even the characters know that:

Mr. Reese:
What about the RAM chips? Have they lost all their data?

Mr. Finch:
Battery’s dead. It has no power source. Could be a residual charge in the lithium-ion backup. If there was, I fried it.

Mr. Reese:
Come on, Finch, there’s got to be a way to resuscitate it.

Mr. Finch:
Mr. Reese, even if there were battery power left, we don’t have enough processing power to decompress the Machine.

Well, that can be helped, of course:

These particular gaming consoles have a unique cellular structure that can be scaled. Networked, they approach the processing power of a supercomputer,  but only use about 1/10 of the power, and their OS can be overwritten with Linux.

According to Wikipedia, there’s some truth to it …

In November 2010 the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) created a powerful supercomputer by connecting together 1,760 Sony PS3s which include 168 separate graphical processing units and 84 coordinating servers in a parallel array capable of performing 500 trillion floating-point operations per second (500 TFLOPS). As built the Condor Cluster was the 33rd largest supercomputer in the world and would be used to analyze high definition satellite imagery.

… and that’s likely where the script writer got his idea. There’s just one teensy-tiny problem: you can’t just build a supercomputer out of 300 used PS3 consoles, at least not given the extremely short amount of time the team has to complete this task.

First of all, you’ll need to obtain 300 consoles that still work. The PS3 model in question was the launch version, so it’s at least ten years old. These consoles had technical issues causing them to fail early (the so-called “Yellow Light of Death” or YLOD, where the console would die from overheating), and considering Root found the hardware on a recycling yard, it’s not hard to guess why they ended up there. Since she can’t know if they still work or not, she’d have to test them all to ensure they don’t fail seconds into decompressing the machine.

Second, even if all the consoles still work, the OtherOS functionality that came with the original model was removed with a firmware update in 2010. Considering many later games required the user to update the firmware in order for them to run and considering what purpose a PS3 usually has (beside building supercomputers, of course), there’s a good chance none of the consoles Root acquired still have that functionality. She’d have to check for that as well.

Third, the OtherOS feature doesn’t just work out of the box. You can’t just start a PS3 and expect it to boot into Linux – you’ll have to install it first, a procedure which will likely take at least a few hours unless Root happens to have a disc ready for each of the consoles, which seems unlikely considering the sparse equipment in the lab. Also, only a handful of Linux distributions even worked with OtherOS, which makes things even harder. They are still obtainable, of course, but all these things waste precious time – time the team doesn’t have!

Fourth, even after installing Linux, making a supercomputer out of a bunch of PS3s probably won’t work without a good amount of fiddling – it’s Linux, right? Even genius hackers like Root and Mr. Finch can’t type faster than their fingers move, and as we learned more than once in this episode, time is of the essence – at least as long as it’s okay with the plot.

Fifth, Mr. Finch was talking about “terabytes of data” that would be lost from a single error in the compressed RAM, so we can assume the machine requires at least a few terabytes of storage to even boot, let alone do its thing. PS3 consoles simply don’t offer that much storage – their memory (RAM) is only 256 Megabytes and the stock hard drive was between 20 and 160 Gigabytes. The final count of consoles used was only 70 (see below) so the max. storage space on stock drives would only be around 10 TB. Of course, the drives could have been upgraded, but that’d take even more time, plus Root would also need to get her hands on a huge number of hopefully undamaged hard drives.

Of course, none of these glaring problems stop them from building their supercomputer anyway. Here’s how it looks:

Image (c) CBS

Image (c) CBS

Seems my doubts weren’t entirely unfounded since that’s only about 70 PS3s, not 300 – maybe the rest of them simply didn’t work. Not quite as big a supercomputer as Root might have had in mind, but still, that’s some impressive hardware. I’m a bit confused about the amount of CAT5 cables hanging everywhere, though. Since the PS3 doesn’t have more than one network port, there shouldn’t be more than one colored wire coming from each console, but there clearly are. Take a look at the leftmost console in the lower shelf for an example, there’s a green network cable coming out of the HDMI port which is right above of the network connector (which a blue cable is connected to):

Image (c) CBS

Image (c) CBS

Also, many of them don’t seem to be connected to the power grid at all, which is odd since they all light up. Which by the way is also odd since I don’t remember the PS3 having a colored LED on the back of the machine. All that wiring must have been great fun to set up under pressure anyway, but it seems like Mr. Reese was able to help with that, even though he doesn’t speak nerd.

Of course the whole thing almost blows up because the PS3s can’t keep up with the machine’s demand of processing power. One by one, the consoles crap out with sparks and a nice fluff of magic smoke, which would actually strain the remaining ones even harder, but since time is only a problem if the script asks for it, Mr. Reese manages to grab a liquid nitrogen container from the street (now at least that’s realistic, these safety hazards are literally just standing around at every corner in NYC) and is able to cool down the cluster so much the machine is still able to recover. Take that, science!


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