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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.