Mankind remains fascinated by robots and the vast potential that artificial intelligence will bring. The idea that robots lurk and take over our hegemony in the world is anchored in our pop culture — think Metropolis, Blade Runner, Cherry 2000, A.I, or I, Robot. In most stories the trust between humans and robots is reduced to zero — technology as the ultimate form of self-destruction. Sci-fi allows us to visualize a world where robots are part of our everyday lives. Robots will make our existence easier and we don’t have to worry about ethics and the burden of physical labor on the machine. Or do we?
Humans is a co-adaptation from Channel 4 and AMC of the Swedish series Real Humans. The show is renewed for a second season in the UK/US and will air later this year. In Humans, “Synths” resemble real people. However, they are “mindless” robots that are recognizable by their brightly colored green eyes and monotonous, stereotypical behavior. Synths fulfill several roles, including domestic helper, factory worker or companion to the elderly. A Synth can even be used as a sex partner. The show proposes various philosophical questions. Is it morally wrong to have sex with a robot? Do robots have free will?
Gemma Chan as Anita, Lucy Carless as Mattie Hawkins and Tom Goodman Hill as Joe Hawkins. Photo by Des Willie/Kudos/AMC/C4
Humans is set in London and centers around Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill), who buys a Synth named Anita (Gemma Chan) as an extra hand in the household and in a last-minute effort to help his relationship with his wife, Laura (Katherine Parkinson). The reclusive scientist George Millican (William Hurt) sees his Synth, Odi (Will Tudor), like a son. Leo (Colin Morgan) searches for someone helped by his Synth, Max (Ivanno Jeremiah), who he treats as his equal. And D.S. Peter Drummond (Neil Maskell) investigates cases involving Synths.
Why are we so fascinated with robots? The cognitive sciences, neuroscience and robotics — partly under the influence of evolutionary biology — see various alternative approaches to human cognition that are often summarized as “embodied cognition.” Authors like Antonio Damasio oppose the idea that the “spirit” resides in the brain and, similar to a computer, can be transfixed on the transformation of sensory input into motor input. Damasio emphasizes that the brain is an integral part of the body and that humans always stand active in the world with their bodies. So cognition and consciousness are not focused on a passive representation of the environment but on continuous interaction to shape their environment and make it understandable.
Thus it seems that robotics is the next logical step in our information age to make our lives easier. All you have to do is combine matter (robotics), life (genetics) and consciousness (neuron). Voilà. The robot is born…
Sope Dirisu as Fred. Photo by Ed Miller/Kudos/AMC/C4
The fascinating aspect of Humans is that it’s centered in a dystopian near-future which eerily resembles our society as it exists right now. The premise doesn’t even seem far-fetched.
In March 2015, at SXSW in Austin, eager festivalgoers unsuspectingly chatted with the robot Ava on Tinder while they thought they had a genuine connection with a person of flesh and blood. It proved to be a publicity stunt for the film Ex Machina but demonstrated that the boundaries — people vs. robots — are fading.
In Ex Machina we see the blurring of boundaries via the Turing test, which assesses the intelligence of a robot in order to see if it’s no longer distinguishable from a human being. The test is 65 years old and now outdated. It can’t be taken seriously in the world of artificial intelligence because it’s focused solely on simulating human intelligence.
What are the guidelines when it comes to artificial intelligence and robot consciousness in our pop culture? Science fiction author Isaac Asimov established three rules for the functioning of robots in human society: (a) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. (b) A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. (c) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Emily Berrington as Niska. Photo by Gary Moyes/Kudos/AMC/C4
In Asimov’s stories the aforementioned laws are built into all the robots, although the plot often revolves around the fear that they can be circumvented and robots can turn against their maker — thus the need to protect humans from robot aggression. There are various options of robot rebellion — e.g. computer hacking, computer viruses and self-organizing systems.
In Humans, several Synths are sentient. Most people in their society, except for a select group, are unaware that Synths can be “conscious.” The sentient Synths have to protect themselves and go undercover as normal Synths to avoid being caught and destroyed. The show handles the philosophical questions with ease and doesn’t tip the scale when it comes to entertainment and showing the underlying problems with Synths, the ultimate existential threat, in modern society.
The survival and the struggle of the Synths lightly reflect the struggles of minorities and underrepresented groups in our society. While watching the show, viewers will shift allegiance numerous times between the oppressed (Synths) and the oppressors (humans) and vice versa. The show never gives a satisfying answer whether artificial intelligence will ultimately replace the humans of flesh and blood. Perhaps that’s a question that never will be answered.
Sope Dirisu as Fred, Colin Morgan as Leo, Ivanno Jeremiah as Max, Gemma Chan as Anita, Emily Berrington as Niska and Pixie Davies as Sophie Hawkins. Photo by Colin Hutton/Kudos/AMC/C4
What is the appeal of Humans? The crux of the show lies in the humanity of the relationships. Sure, the show is focused on the integration of Synths and humans and the ethical questions when it comes to consciousness, artificially intelligent life, technology, man playing God, and social norms. However, ultimately, the show underlines the humanity of all the leads — human and Synth — and that cements the story.
Humans is a story about humanity, friendship, survival and perseverance. It shows that we should celebrate the gift that is life. After all, everything changes. Nothing is set in ones and zeros.