“Humans”? They Weren’t Kidding.

Spoilers.  Duh.

Honestly, I can't see much difference from the staff they've already got at Home Depot...

Honestly, I can’t see much difference from the staff they’ve already got at Home Depot…

So that was Humans. Eight hours of carefully-arced, understated British narrative about robots: an AMC/Channel 4 coproduction that’s netted Channel 4 its biggest audiences in over two decades. What great casting. What fine acting. What nice production values. What a great little bit of subtext as William Hurt and his android, both well past their expiry dates, find meaning in their shared obsolescence.

What a pleasant 101-level introduction to AI for anyone who’s never thought about AI before, who’s unlikely to think about AI again, and who doesn’t like thinking very hard about much of anything.

*

Humans extrapolates not so much forwards as sideways. Its world is recognizably ours in every way but one. Cars, cell phones, forensic methodology: everything is utterly contemporary but for the presence of so-called “synths” in our midst. These synths, we’re told, have been around for at least fourteen years. So this is no future; this is an alternate present, a parallel timeline in which someone invented general-purpose, sapient AI way back in 2001. (I wonder if that was a deliberate nod to you-know-who.)

In this way Humans superficially feels much like that other British breakout, Black Mirror. It appears to follow the same formula, seducing the casual, non-geek viewer in the same way: by not making the world too different. By easing them into it. Let them think they’re on familiar ground, then subvert their expectations.

Except Humans doesn’t actually do that.

Start by positing a new social norm: neurolinked subcutaneous life-loggers the size of a rice grain, embedded behind everyone’s right ear. But don’t stop there. Explore the ramifications, ranging from domestic (characters replay good sex in their heads while participating in bad sex on their beds) to state (your recent memories are routinely seized and searched whenever you pass through a security checkpoint). That’s an episode of Black Mirror.

South Park did it better.

South Park did it better.

So how does this approach play out in Humans? What are the ramifications when you have AGIs in every home, available for a few grand at the local WalMart? This is what Humans is ostensibly all about, and it’s a question well worth exploring— but all the series ever does with it is trot out the old exploited-underclass trope. Nothing changes, except now we’ve got synths doing our gardening instead of Mexicans. We rail against robots taking our jobs instead of immigrants. That’s pretty much it.

I mean, at the very least, shouldn’t all the cars in this timeline be self-driving by now?

Once or twice Humans hesitantly turns the Othering Dial past what you might expect for a purely human underclass. Angry yahoos with tire irons gather in underground parkades to bash in the skulls of unresisting synths, and at one point William Hurt sends his faithful malfunctioning droid out into the woods for an indefinite game of hide-and-seek. But both those episodes were lifted directly from Spielbricks’s 2001 movie “A.I.” (as was William Hurt, now that I think of it). And given the recent cascade of compromising video footage filtering up from the US, I’m not at all convinced that bands of disgruntled white people wouldn’t have a mass immigrant bash-in, given half the chance. Or that law enforcement would do anything to stop them.

There is nothing artificial about these intelligences. The sapient ones (around whom the story revolves) are Just Like Us. They want to live, Just Like We Do. They want to be Free, Just Like Us. They rage against their sexual enslavement, Just Like We Would. And the nonsapient models? Never fear; by the end of the season, we’ve learned that with a bit of viral reprogramming, they too can be Just Like Us!

They are so much like us, in fact, that they effectively shut down any truly interesting questions you might want to ask about AI.

synth18+

I have to put a caption here, because stupid WordPress erases the text padding otherwise and I can’t be bothered to tweak the code.

Let’s take sex, for example.

I’m pretty sure that even amongst those who subscribe to the concept of monogamous marriage, few would regard masturbation as an act of infidelity. Likewise, you might be embarrassed getting caught with your penis in a disembodied rubber vagina, but your partner would be pretty loony-tunes to accuse you of cheating on that account. Travel further along that spectrum— inflatable sex dolls, dolls that radiate body heat, dolls with little servos that pucker their lips and move their limbs— until you finally end up fucking a flesh-and-blood, womb-born, sapient fellow being. At which point pretty much everyone would agree that you were cheating (assuming you were in a supposedly monogamous relationship with someone else, of course).

A question I’d find interesting is, where does an android lie on that spectrum? Does the spectrum even apply to an android? By necessity, infidelity involves a betrayal of trust between beings (as opposed to a betrayal over something inanimate; if you keep shooting heroin after you’ve promised your partner you’ll stop, you’ve betrayed their trust but you’re not an infidel). Infidelity with a robot, then, implies that the robot is a being in its own right. Otherwise you’re just jerking off into a mannequin.

Let’s say your synth is a being. The very concept of exploitation hinges on the premise that the exploitee has needs and desires that are being oppressed in some way. I, the privileged invader, steal resources that should be yours. Through brute bullying force I impose my will upon you, and dismiss your own as inconsequential.

But what if your will, subordinate though it may be, is entirely in accord with mine?

asimovsynth

Nice bit of Alternate-reality documentation, though.

I’m not just talking about giving rights to toasters— or at least, if I am, I’m willing to grant that said toasters might be sapient. But so what if they are? Suppose we build a self-aware machine that does have needs and desires— but those needs and desires conform exactly to the role we designed them for? Our sapient slavebot wants to work in the mines; our self-aware sexbot wants to be used. There are issues within issues here: whether a mechanical humanoid is complex enough to have interests of its own; if so, whether it’s even possible to “oppress” something whose greatest aspiration is to be oppressed. Is there some moral imperative that makes it an a priori offense to build sapient artefacts that lack the capacity to suffer and rage and rebel— and if so, how fucking stupid can moral imperatives be?

I’m nowhere near the first to raise such questions. (Who can forget Douglas Adam’s sapient cow from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, neurologically designed to want nothing more than to be eaten by hungry customers?) Which makes it all the more disappointing that Humans, ostensibly designed as an exploration platform for exactly these issues, is too damn gutless to engage with them. A hapless husband, in a fit of pique, activates the household synth’s “Adult Mode” and has a few minutes of self-loathing sex with it. The synth itself— which you’d think would have been programmed to at least act as though it’s getting off— sadly endures the experience, with all the long-suffering dignity of a Victorian wife performing her wifely duties under a caddish and insensitive husband.

When the real wife finds out what happens, predictably, she hits the roof— and while the husband makes a brief and half-hearted attempt to play the It’s just a machine! card, he obviously doesn’t believe it any more than we viewers are supposed to. In fact, he spends the rest of the season wringing his hands over the unforgivable awfulness of his sin.

Robocop also did it better.

Robocop also did it better.

Throughout the whole season, the only character who plays with the idea of combining sapience with servility is the mustache-twirling villain of the piece— and even he doesn’t go anywhere near the idea of sidestepping oppression by editing desire. Nah, he just imposes the same ham-fisted behavioral lock we saw back in Paul Verhoeven’s (far superior) Robocop, when Directive 4 kicked in.

*

Humans pretends to be genre subversive, thinks that by setting itself in a completely conventional setting it can lure in people who might be put off by T-800 endoskeletons and Lycra jumpsuits. It promises to play with Big Ideas, but without all those ostentatious FX— so by the time the casual viewer realizes they’ve been watching that ridiculous science fiction rubbish it won’t matter, because they’re already hooked.

You have no idea where this show is going.

You have no idea where this show is going.

It’s a great strategy, if you do it right. Look at Fortitude, for example: another British coproduction that begins for all the world like a police procedural, then seems to segue into some kind of ghost story before finally revealing itself as one of the niftiest little bits of cli-fi ever to grace a flatscreen. (The only reason I’m not devoting this whole post to Fortitude is because I wrote my latest Nowa Fantastyka column on the subject, and I must honor both my ethical and contractual noncompete constraints).

Humans does not do it right. For all the lack of special effects there’s little subtlety here; it pays lip service to Is it live or is it Memorex, but it doesn’t explore those issues so much as preach about them in a way that never dares challenge baseline preconceptions. With Fortitude you started off thinking you were in the mainstream, only to end up in SF. Humans does the reverse, launching with the promise of a thought-provoking journey into the ramifications of artificial intelligence; but it doesn’t take long for the green eyes to ‘ware thin and its true nature to emerge. In the end, Humans is just another shallow piece of social commentary, making the point— over eight glossy, well-acted episodes— that Slavery Is Wrong.

What a courageous stand to take, here in 2015. What truth, spoken to power.

What a wasted fucking opportunity.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Thursday August 13 2015at 02:08 pm , filed under ink on art . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

24 Responses to ““Humans”? They Weren’t Kidding.”

  1. Its a remake of the Swedish TV series /Real Humans/. I don’t know if that excuses the bad writing. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Real_Humans

  2. It’s better than Äkta människor, I stopped watching that after three episodes. At least the British version omitted a factory which was staffed by humanoid robots walking around the factory floor in drab grey garments.

  3. I don’t know, even Charlie Stross fell into the “Welp we have robots identical to humans let’s all become slaveowners” thing with Jupiter’s children, though he hid that behind a veil by putting the humans extinct in the recent past and the robots getting on without them. I’m not naive enough to think we couldn’t go back to what was after all the norm for most of human history, but I’d like to think it would take SOME explaining, some justification.

  4. I think Humans is an example of science fiction being so concerned with character and story and the human heart that it kind of forgets about the science fiction bit. It’s the counter-reaction to 2001.

    More cynically, a show that concentrates on the human characters and spends most of the time portraying their emotional family relationships can be written by your average screenwriter and doesn’t require an effects budget. I don’t want to call them hacks, because good writing is hard in any field, but they just Don’t Get It when it comes to thinking through implications of technology.

    Peter, why do you torment yourself by watching TV anyway? :-)

  5. Infidelity isn’t about the the being-ness of the extramarital partner (who may or may not be happy to do it). It’s about cheating the other married person out of promised resources – time, money, attention, status – and potentially eventually leaving them entirely. If an android potentially makes men want to divorce and live with the android, then it’s a valid target of jealousy and the men can be accused of infidelity, regardless of whether the android is sapient or its feelings and desires.

  6. “…with all the long-suffering dignity of a Victorian wife performing her wifely duties under a caddish and insensitive husband.”

    Lol. Very true. The family reaction I could see happening even without the buried, self-aware subcode given the human tendency to humanize animals, inanimate objects just like the synth-bashing events, but then I live in a large mental asylum founded by prudes that still thinks its an empire.

    I’m fairly disgusted with all the sci-fi shows I’m watching {Under the Dome, The Strain, Dark Matter occasionally fun and at least included sleeving in one episode, Killjoys, Defiance which at least had a fun ending to a recurring plot thing but wasn’t enough to make up for it, Zoo recently saw one episode and feels like all the rest} with perhaps the exception of Mr. Robot if you count that. iZombie is at least funny, but is really Elementary where eating brains replaces memorizing obscure knowledge.

    Hadn’t even heard of Fortitude and Pivot is neither replaying it nor hosting it OD.

  7. “Rick and Morty” is an example of a show that can balance the definition of its characters (usually lunatic, nihilistic and damaged) and making fun of the old sci-fi tropes, while avoiding some of the traps you have mentioned in “Humans”.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szzVlQ653as

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7HmltUWXgs

  8. Oh yeah, Rick and Morty definitely is more your speed. I’m ashamed I didn’t recommend it first.

  9. Nestor,

    To be fair, Stross had interesting things to say in Saturn’s Children & Neptune’s Brood — just not about *robots*. He was talking about slave societies and misogyny and systematic sexual abuse, and using robots to turn the dials up to eleven, rather than having the robot-ness be the core. (This in the same way that Glasshouse isn’t about matter replicators so much as gender roles, and The Family Trade isn’t about interdimensional travel so much as it’s about the politics of feudal societies clashing with influxes of modern tech and culture.) The robots in Saturn’s Children acted like emotionally damaged humans because they were perfect brain-scans of human nervous systems stuck in durable robot bodies and then emotionally damaged in order to prevent them from rebelling.

  10. Hugh: Peter, why do you torment yourself by watching TV anyway?

    Obviously you’ve never seen Breaking Bad. Or Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot before it went so tragically off the rails. Or True Detective (same caveat). Or even Game of furry Thrones.

    TV can be awesomely good. And as an old friend once told me when I caught him reading a novel by Eric van Lustbader, You can’t truly appreciate the good until you’ve experienced the bad.

    Daniel Armak: Infidelity isn’t about the the being-ness of the extramarital partner (who may or may not be happy to do it). It’s about cheating the other married person out of promised resources – time, money, attention, status – and potentially eventually leaving them entirely.

    Yeah, very fair point. I kind of knew it all along, but I was too eager for a way to segue from sex into general oppression so I got sloppy.

    That said, though, there’s no end to the activities that deprive a partner of promised resources; it only starts with porn and compulsive masturbation, and goes on into gambling and videogame addiction. Football widows may feel, well, widowed, but if you use “infidelity” to cover all promised-resource-depriving activities, I think you’ve broadened the definition so far that it loses most of its functionality.

    gnz: “Rick and Morty” is an example of a show that can balance the definition of its characters (usually lunatic, nihilistic and damaged) and making fun of the old sci-fi tropes, while avoiding some of the traps you have mentioned in “Humans”.

    I have never encountered Rick and Morty before! Thank you, gnz. You have made this Monday worth living through.

  11. As an actor/director I was not impressed with the acting or directing. It was fine – but there was no where for the actors to go because the scripts were so bland. I love TV shows for great writing, acting and directing. If they are also SF that is a plus. I got none of those here – nothing interested my brain, excited my senses or moved my emotions. Ah well – there is always next time.

  12. Glad you felt this way too – I was feeling like the only grumpy old curmudgeon on the block. (I tweeted it thus, about halfway through –

    Hmm – “Humans” seems to be wavering a bit; all the edgy issues of What is Human are getting squeezed out for cheap Guardianista morality.
    What started out being about replicants – uh, synths – is now about the trials and tribulations of a nice middle class family under stress.
    Something raw went missing in action a couple of episodes back, and now the programme seems to be terrified of the material it’s dealing in.

    I think in the end it was that terror of the real implications that stifled it. You’ve got to wonder what it would have looked like in Charlie Brooker’s hands.

    Sigh.

  13. Richard Morgan: You’ve got to wonder what it would have looked like in Charlie Brooker’s hands.

    Or yours, for that matter.

  14. :-)

    Well, in mine the sex would definitely have been better…..

  15. Nestor:
    I don’t know, even Charlie Stross fell into the “Welp we have robots identical to humans let’s all become slaveowners” thing with Jupiter’s children, though he hid that behind a veil by putting the humans extinct in the recent past and the robots getting on without them. I’m not naive enough to think we couldn’t go back to what was after all the norm for most of human history, but I’d like to think it would take SOME explaining, some justification.

    Arguably, it’s still the norm, if you apply “slave” to anything performing a duty without having consented to doing so. The fact that machines are specifically build for such purposes, and really don’t mind (mostly due to lacking a mind), really turns the question back to “why would you even use an AGI for something like that, instead of something that doesn’t care (because it either cannot care, or prefers to do its job)?”

    Daniel Armak:
    Infidelity isn’t about the the being-ness of the extramarital partner (who may or may not be happy to do it). It’s about cheating the other married person out of promised resources – time, money, attention, status – and potentially eventually leaving them entirely. If an android potentially makes men want to divorce and live with the android, then it’s a valid target of jealousy and the men can be accused of infidelity, regardless of whether the android is sapient or its feelings and desires.

    That kind of implies that sleeping with prostitutes doesn’t constitute infidelity (at least, I think most husbands don’t consider bought sex grounds to leave their wives); I’m pretty sure the common norm doesn’t agree with that.

  16. Pirmin,

    How does Daniel’s claim imply service from a prostitute isn’t infidelity? It seems to follow from the claim—Daniel’s claim—that infidelity is “cheating the other married person out of promised resources” that include “time, money, attention, status.” If the marital partner does not consent to how the client consumes the time and money with the prostitute, and the partner expected those from the client, then using a prostitute is cheating on that claim. It doesn’t matter whether or not husbands leave wives (are the wives the ones using the sex workers or are the husbands? What about husbands leaving husbands or wives wives?). What matters on that claim is consideration in the marital contract.

    Not that we have to take that claim as given. I’m sure there’s all kinds of reason for why people feel cheated on, beyond contractual or promissory obligations.

    Like honor or something.

  17. Peter Watts: …Or Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot before it went so tragically off the rails. Or True Detective (same caveat)..

    Started watching TD Season 1 about week ago, then finished up 2 last night. Seeing many articles re: fix it for season 3, but little specifics on what was “wrong” with season 2. Plot too complex was one. Can’t imagine Dune or Deadwood fans would agree on that.

    Did illustrate why the glut of bad cop/spook shows tend to focus on simple-minded hoodlums and jihadis: painting a picture of a syndicate requires a lot of plot space. How many times did we see Frank going back to an old business? How many charges could have been leveled against the Chessanis had there been an entity able to do so?

    A little slow at times, but then probably so was 1, it was just that the smaller crucible made for better psychological drama. I think.

    Did I miss something?

  18. Charles R,

    My apologies, I apparently wasn’t specific enough with my quotes – I mostly had this part in mind:
    Daniel Armak:
    Infidelity [i]s about (…) potentially eventually leaving [the other married person] entirely. If an android potentially makes men want to divorce and live with the android, then it’s a valid target of jealousy and the men can be accused of infidelity, regardless of whether the android is sapient or its feelings and desires.

    Replace “android” with “prostitute”, and then wonder whether engaging with prostitutes makes husbands divorce their wives. As far as I know, it’s rarely the case. Now, younger women as new marriage and child-bearing prospects might be a completely different thing, but they usually don’t get paid.

    That broader definition of infidelity really doesn’t work for me, because then a husband going down to the pub with his chumms would be a cheater, since he’s deriving his wive of his time, money, attention, and potentially status (depending on how nasty he’s getting drunk).

  19. Have you seen The Machine? It’s a couple of years older than Ex Machina. As a film, it’s nowhere near as slick as Ex Machina, but more intellectually interesting in the possibilities it presents. It struggles with its cliches for a while, trying to be an action movie, but it presents a range of posthuman/cyborg and AI types and the very last lines spoken imply something far more in the direction of what you’ve been talking about (I’m being coy to avoid spoilers of course). Ultimately I prefer it.

    As for Humans, I think that it can be summed up as an attempt to look at AI by The Guardian.

  20. — and even he doesn’t go anywhere near the idea of sidestepping oppression by editing desire.

    That’s even worse than whips & chains & widespread terror.

    I found it curious that most people were even more disgusted with ‘SM’ Stirling’s Final Society than with the preceding one, which was supposed to be a completely unapologetic totalitarian police state for proles done right. (IIRC, rural populations were reduced to something like serfdom with jus primae noctis thrown in..)

  21. One of the few things I thought really interesting, and probably the closest to eventual reality as the show got, was the conceit that those Synths which were in the self-actualizing class of human-equivalent AI were those which had been developed for the purpose of being babysitters for a developmentally-disabled child.

    In real life, all of the Google Prancing Pony Bots aside, where we see some of the most sincere development of robotics are in places where the societies are well-aware that they need fairly simple but reliable caretaker assistants. Japan, with its well-known combination of a demographic crisis and with much of the modern generation suffering from one or another malady of grossly overcrowded society, is a world leader in caretaker and assistant robots.

    Japan may have the most experience in studying the interactions between humans and robots, and they are well acquainted with the so-called “Uncanny Valley” phenomenon. They do find that people would rather deal with a robot that is pretty clearly a robot, yet they are always trying to push past the form-follows-function aesthetic which may have first been critiqued by Anthony Boucher’s 1943 “Q.U.R.”. What we get as a sort of centerline of their aesthetic is the ASIMO, android and multifunction but hardly close to the Uncanny Valley. However, there is another fork of development there, a fork seeking deep into the Uncanny Valley and getting very deeply there, but for now at least, ASIMO is far and away the leader in mobility and independent functionality. Yet, if all you want is the equivalent of a slightly mobile mannequin that has about the intelligence of a fairly limited cellphone-AI, Japan is forging right ahead with public deployments. (I personally would far prefer Max Headroom on HDTV at a “you are here” kiosk at the entryway to the shopping mall.)

    Some advances are being made, now, with Elder Care Robots, but these have the same problem as babysitting robots. Summarized, “they don’t need a whole lot of intelligence, except when they do need a whole lot of intelligence”. In babysitting applications — of which Elder Care can be a large subset — most robots need only be sensor mounts. For example, if a fire emerges from defective wiring in a child’s room, a robot could very quickly detect heat and smoke and notify everyone who needed notification, and do it with incredible speed. Yet the real need here would be for a robot that has a combination of the strength to pick up a child and remove it to safely while also being capable of the delicacy to handle the child without breakage. That is probably a much simpler problem than the one of being capable of assessing escape routes and dealing with the exigencies of escape-route blockages. As complex as they are, even humans can fail pretty badly at that, and all too often do.

    Possible **spoiler alert** for material below…

    One of the problems I had with the way Synths were developed in “Humans”, was that they’re all meant to be AI, but most are not anything other than a class of AI that can fairly effectively solve problems relating to fulfilling tasks directed from outside of themselves. This is actually a degree of intelligence and problem-solving vastly exceeding where we are now. One might suppose that they could readily access a vast library of routine via wireless link, for example a map-the-locale onboard-resident routine could be combined with a “how to hold and operate the Mark III Home Vacuum System Model Number xxxx” routine downloaded from the net, parsed out into a bloody lot of the equivalent of stepper-motor drivers to get the android to be going through the motions. We know from some dialog in the show that the Synths regularly communicate wirelessly with each other, and we see something perilously close to spontaneously-emergent AI from the “non-independent” Synths when they ask the “Indy” Synths “why don’t you share?” If the show hadn’t backed itself into so many silly corners in Season One, that might actually be some fairly good foreshadowing for future seasons in which the unseen — yet presumably truly vast — mass-storage systems feeding routines wirelessly to the “customer premises equipment”, start actually looking for answers rather than just asking questions such as “why don’t you share”. Another question left out in la-la land is that of onboard storage. if the Synths in general have little enough memory so as to need to be communicating wirelessly to download general routines or to upload new experiences back to “central” for analysis and generation of new routines to download as needed to other units, how is it that the much-greater memory needed for “Indy” AI (that will not be accessing that central routine repository) can even fit in their heads? If the difference is that they are specially equipped with lots more memory (and/or CPU power), how can anyone be worried that the special software sparking the “Indy” Synths could cause a revolution of robotic awareness in the servile Synths? If the difference is in the software itself, we might have an answer to “why don’t you share”. As it is, if it’s the latter case, what you have is a half-dozen minimally-superhuman AI living fully independent existences, connected to a greater whole only when wired together through a console, and that greater whole is only that locally-networked half-dozen units. But if the special software that makes them self-aware and capable of independent existence were to get back into the network servicing the non-sentient AI Synths, we might very well have an significantly-superhuman network-based AI with, according to the show, millions of Synth bodies.

    I do hope I didn’t just give away Seasons Two and Three, though of course if I did, it was predictable tripe anyway.

  22. Off-topicky.

    This is not quite a movie rec. More of a if-you’re-bored, got the time, and can see it free kind of thing. I’ve watched a lot of bad ones recently, so my bar isn’t real high here.

    Bloodworx. B movie but I suppose on the higher end of production values as far as that goes. Also some decent humor on the front end.

    What I liked was how it examined one intelligent idea I’ve seen mentioned here before. It’s a fairly typical drug trial sci-fi horror flic otherwise. Without giving too much away, one side-effect is nullification of the “gross out” reaction. In other words, the potential to stop worrying and love the dystopia via chemistry.

    But what else might go along with that? At one point does lacking repulsion lead to unintended consequences?

    Not handled expertly, but it at least beats sharks adapting to living in clouds. Of course it didn’t hurt that it awoke some sort of hot-college-dudes-in-clinical-settings fetish that I don’t want to think too deeply about, but that’s probably just me. 😉

  23. This probably belongs here as much/more than the humans are locusts thread. Mentions a/the free will test cheating study.

    Many Psychology Findings Not as Strong as Claimed, Study Says.

    Had a liar-paradox headache coming on when I saw this. They mean a study says many other studies are unreliable.

  24. The last decent bit of Brit TV scifi might have been Red Dwarf.