The Problem with AMC’s Sci-Fi Hit Humans

Anita (Gemma Chan), the Hawkins family's synth, reads to Sophie (Pixie Davies) as her mother watches. Photo credit: Des Willie/Kudos/AMC/C4

The following essay contains some minor spoilers. – eds.

Imagine a world where robots look, act, and function like human beings, minus consciousness or free will. They’ve been programmed to take over sophisticated tasks, like housekeeping, manual labor, medical care and, yes, sex. Imagine the human equivalent of a Roomba.

This is the world depicted in AMC’s Humans, which recently wrapped up its first season. Set in a “parallel present” where highly sophisticated androids—called “synths”—have become ubiquitous, the show explores what it would be like for humans to one day experience intimacy, jealousy, and bigotry towards machines.

Critics have praised Humans for going beyond sci-fi’s typical doomsday portrayal of artificial intelligence. If the Terminator and Matrix franchises reflected our fear of one day being dominated by machines, Humans taps into a subtler anxiety about being replaced by them. In this parallel world, synths don’t just take jobs, they also excel at the subtleties of domestic labor: preparing home cooked meals, massaging a tired spouse, reading to a child before putting her to bed.

Writing for Engadget, Devindra Hardawar argues that we’re seeing a shift in representations of A.I. in popular culture like Ex Machina and Black Mirror, another U.K. TV import, both of which depict androids designed to evoke human emotions. For Hardawar, we seem to be preparing for an inevitable future. “We’re still facing our fears and anxieties of this new tech through science fiction,” Hardawar points out, “but now it’s on a much smaller and more intimate scale.”

But humans won’t be displaced by androids. As fascinating as this new wave of sci-fi is, it misses something important: our robotic usurpers are already here, they just don’t look like us. Any future involving the displacement of humans most likely belongs to “theroids,” a vast menagerie of mechanical beasts.

Robots taking jobs

Humans’ title sequence opens with grainy video clips documenting the progress of android dexterity and intelligence. A giant metal hulk gives way to articulating arms and fingers; soon robots are sewing, moving chess pieces, and playing the violin; and finally, snippets of advertising promise “extra help around the house,” and ask, “What could you accomplish if you had someone—something—like this?” A newspaper headline states: “Robots threaten 10 Million Jobs.”

In the world of Humans a linear progression of android development has resulted in synths who match or exceed human dexterity and capability enabling them to take over a number of jobs, from waiters to nurses to 9-1-1 operators. Low-skilled workers have been displaced en masse, spawning the “We Are People” movement. But Humans isn’t concerned with the politics of this world so much as it is with the emotional toll it might take on a middle class family like the Hawkins, who purchase a synth they call Anita in the pilot episode.

We see the mother, Laura Hawkins, cringe when her youngest daughter prefers that Anita read to her at bedtime. “I can take better care of your children than you can,” she tells Laura. And it’s true, of course, that a synth is never tired, bored, angry, or intoxicated; that they bake better cakes, never get impatient when reading to a child, and can even attend to the needs of a lonely husband. But we often show love through acts of domestic labor. Humans asks how it would feel to outsource such care.

Meanwhile, Laura’s eldest child Mattie must navigate young adulthood in a rapidly changing world. She had wanted to be a doctor, but now Synths do the job better than any human can. “There’s nothing I could do that a synth can’t do better,” she complains to her boyfriend, as they sit overlooking a golf course. The synth caddies, she remarks, can hit holes-in-one every time.

What will our usurpers look like?

This proliferation of androids forces us to ask a very specific set of existential questions about our relationship to technology and what remains of human purpose. Such questions emerge organically in the world of Humans because synths look just like us. They’re essentially a digital upgrade: Humanity 2.0.

But while androids make for a powerful literary device through which to explore our fear that technology might one day surpass us, the human form isn’t always best for the job. Take, for example, the synth telephone operator. Why create a physical robot for this job which has to receive audio through a wired earpiece and then respond via speaker into a microphone? Couldn’t synth software do the trick without complex parts that mimic the functions of ears and a mouth?

Furthermore, wouldn’t it make better economic sense to distribute artificial intelligence across multiple hardware platforms, instead of clustering so much precious technology into a single body? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a dog-like Roomba, a wireless home operating system, and a self-driving car, since each component could be upgraded and replaced?

In our own world, this diversified approach to robot morphology is already the norm. Rather than build androids with broad intelligence and skill sets, manufacturers have been developing highly specialized robots for specific tasks.  Many are modeled after existing creatures, and so it would be more accurate to call them “theroids,” or “animal-like” robots. For underwater spying the U.S. Navy built a drone that looks and swims like a Bluefin tuna; Boston Dynamics’ “Big Dog” is a tireless pack mule that will walk alongside soldiers in the field; and robotic swans might soon be testing water quality near you, which makes sense since swans are well designed for floating along lakes.

Visit Japan’s first robot-staffed hotel, and you’ll interact with a number of theroids, including a robotic dinosaur. If the dinosaur accidentally hurts you, and you’re elderly, you might be taken care of by a bear. This cuddle bot is a patch of interactive fur, in case that’s your thing. Of course animals aren’t always the best shape for tasks, either. Hotels around the world are buying room service robots that happen to resemble floating trashcans.

In our own world we’re also seeing white-collar jobs outsourced to intelligent machines. Instead of being shaped like humans, however, ours are shaped like computers. In Rise of the Robots, Martin Ford details a number of white-collar careers that have been threatened, or outright replaced, by clever software. The process of legal discovery, for example, was once the job of trained lawyers and paralegals as it took a human mind to discern whether a certain document or fact had potential relevance to the case at hand. Today, “e-Discovery” software can analyze millions of electronic documents and isolate the relevant ones. They go beyond mere keyword searches, using machine learning to isolate concepts, even if specific phrases aren’t present.

Androids can’t replace pharmacists on their own, but pharmacists can be replaced by a complex automated system like the University of California San Francisco’s robotic pharmacy, which is capable of producing hundreds of thousands of labeled doses of medicine without error. This is part of the growing trend within large-scale manufacturing to replace teams of people with customized, automated systems. As John Markoff recently detailed, robotic arms are now picking the lettuce we eat, operating the grocery distribution systems that bring that lettuce to our neighborhoods, and building the cars that get us to the store.

Like any great work of science fiction, Humans draws from our current world to ask big questions about who we are now and what we might become. But although the synth may embody our collective fear of being replaced, the reality is that the android scenario helps obscure the fact that we already share a world with robots that exceed us in a variety of capacities. While we sit on the sofa watching the rise of androids on screen, the Roomba quietly cleans the carpet around us.

  • Kelly

    If we truly think we are superior life forms, we will adapt.

  • Jim Reed

    Software will adapt faster.

  • Rmj

    Well,it will adapt if we make it adapt.
    The question is: should we make it adapt? “Market forces” are societal and human, not natural, after all.

  • Rmj

    This isn’t something “new” in science fiction; just a shift of attention.
    Jack Williamson brilliantly addressed the issue of robots taking over human functions in “With Folded Hands.”
    Kurt Vonnegut looked at the implications of industry becoming completely mechanized in “Player Piano.”
    It was actually quite a lively area of speculation. Isaac Asimov wrote several books and novels on the topic.
    Not to mention the “Butlerian Jihad” which shaped the world of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” novels. The result forbade making a machine, not in the image of a human, but which could think like a human.
    There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

  • conjurehealing

    I am reading this article in the online journal “Religion Dispatches” but there is no discussion of the theological, spiritual, or religious implications of this “new” old idea. At least provide an argument concerning the nature of the soul?! This isn’t original; sorry.

  • Jim Reed

    If there is money to be made, then software will adapt and fill that niche. Whatever society decides makes little difference because software will follow the market forces. This has always been true, but the importance will grow as software evolves. Software will become supernatural, depending on how you define that term. In any case, the goal is always to make money, and no force on earth can stop it.

  • Jim Reed

    Tying in the soul is beyond our current capabilities of understanding. We are still in the before stage, and are wondering about the relationships between humans and robots, with the understanding that artificial intelligence is the key to robots. We are not yet dealing with the MERGER of humans and that artificial intelligence. Once they become linked, humans and robots will become obsolete because it will all be about a new object that is composed of a human brain and artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence means computers, and that means the internet, and that means connections to other computers, and putting it all together that is going to mean a new entity that is composed of multiple human brains and super intelligences. It will be something spread out and including all the brains and computers that can be combined to work as a unit on whatever the problems of that day that drove us to create this new kind of super entity. By the time we have even a basic understanding of what that is, the ancient concept of a soul will be obsolete.

  • conjurehealing

    Well, yes and no. The body and the computer, have already merged, right? Whether through nano-pharmaceuticals, google glasses, or robotic limbs, we see the linkage with human bodies/artificial intelligence all around us in the world. I wonder about the spiritual implications. I wonder about the presence of the soul in these bodies.

  • Jim Reed

    Google glasses and robotic limbs are a start. Some robotic limbs can be linked directly to the brain, even wirelessly. That means the brain is linked to a computer, and the computer drives the limb. Once we are linking brains and computers, that link can become millions of times more powerful given enough time to develop the interface.

    Computers don’t have a soul. Over time, we will come to understand we don’t actually have one either, other than the illusion that we create. Over time, computers will become as good as us at creating illusions, maybe better.

  • nightgaunt

    Also it was found that the closer the robot looked to human the more it was feared and hated.

    Also as of right now roaches are smarter than the smartest A.I.

    What about “Extant” which has a combination armed A.I. android and extraterrestrial threats at once.

  • nightgaunt

    First finding a soul, identifying then quantifying a soul hasn’t yet been done. Let us start there first.

  • nightgaunt

    Again a “soul” has yet to be found or quantified. Jumping the gun here.

  • Rmj

    So we are at the mercy of market forces?
    Seems to me that guy Jesus of Nazareth had a lot to say about that very subject…..

  • nightgaunt

    We’d better adapt to that and more importantly the changes we have inadvertently made in our world to survive it. Anthropogenic Climate Change the outcome of us thinking we can break “the tyranny of Nature” is coming back to crush us.

  • Rmj

    Same can be said for “mind,” and yet everyone talks about a computer that can “think,” or have “a mind of its own.”

    Some even talk about moving their “mind” into a computer someday. The nonexistence/non-quantification of the concept hasn’t stopped anyone from using it.

  • nightgaunt

    Human labor is still cheaper than expensive androids which do not yet exist. And in the future they may have to decide which is more trustworthy and cost affective. A problem the rest of us will be spared.

  • nightgaunt

    Not the same at all. The mind we can see in action, a soul one cannot. A mind cannot exist without a brain.

  • nightgaunt

    The greater problem is the Climate Change we have instigated. If we don’t adapt the way the Neanderthals failed to 35,000 years ago. We will disappear the way they did. They were too conservative and refused to adapt to a change they didn’t like. We seem to be that way now en mass.

  • Rmj

    You can “see” the mind? How? With your third eye? You see people responding, talking, being emotional, and you attribute that to “mind” because convention has taught you to.

    Much as we once attributed it to “humors.”

    You don’t “see” mind, neither can you quantify it. Might as well exchange “mind” for “soul,” for all the distinction you can draw between them.

  • Jim Reed

    Extant shows the power of telling a story on TV. Start with everything you can think of, then each week think about what direction the story want last week, what cast members are left, and come up with a new direction for next week. Plus lots of Halle Berry.

  • Jim Reed

    Climate change can’t wipe us out. It might kill a lot of people, but most will survive, especially the rich. They have a two pronged approach to the problem. One, deny it exists. And two, figure out ahead of time how to profit from it.

  • Jim Reed

    Nobody pays attention to anything Jesus might have said.

  • Jim Reed

    Robots are cheaper, and Amazon has lots of them working in the operation along side the humans. The humans are happy about it because the robots mean better working conditions. Now for the first time they have air conditioning because the robots needed it.

  • Jim Reed

    The Neanderthals disappeared because we ate them.

  • Jim Reed

    A good place to search for a soul might be in the machines.

  • TruthNeedsFreedom

    Hi ConjureHealing – You’re right! The author here really missed the bigger spiritual dilemma.
    AI today is causing many young people to substitute AI for God and the Gospel. One big example is all of the interactive gaming and entertainment flooding into our smart phones. This in your face entertainment (driven by today’s AI programs) is driving a wedge between young people and their opportunity to explore their Duty to develop an appropriate relationship with God.

  • conjurehealing

    While I am not interested in debating theories of the soul – as that is the realm of religion, and then science – I do think that we create the soul, but it isn’t properly an illusion. You are as real as I am, or as real as you are, or as you believe or create (think) yourself to be. Recall the adage, I Am that, I Am. Computers have no “soul” per se because they are not conscious of themselves as alive, sentient, existing (I Am.) They might, one day, but I doubt it would play out as the drama “Humans” articulates this evolution.

  • Soul? What’s that?

  • Jim Reed

    It’s a term for what non-scientific people still don’t understand about human consciousness. In the past when the human brain was less understood, some religious people wanted to live forever, so they thought of the soul as the central part of human consciousness that could survive death of the body and live forever, with a soulful version of eyes and ears, and in the case of evil people also with a sense of pain from things like fire. It has long been popularized in children’s prayers, such as,

    “Now I lay me down to Sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

  • ObscurelyAgnostic

    Agreed! … for a religion blog the spiritual/theological content of this post is pretty thin — it would have been right at home on any secular popular science forum …

  • conjurehealing

    I beg to differ, Jim Reed, about “non-scientific people” using the idea of the “Soul” with respect to human consciousness. Many of the greatest philosophers who have debated this question were also our greatest scientists. It sounds like you are suggesting that this is not a viable question for “science” in this day and time; that might be true, but it certainly has not always been the case. Why is that, I wonder? These are the discussions that “science” needs, IMO.

  • Jim Reed

    In this day we know way more about how the brain functions than scientists past. They had questions about the nature of the soul that we can now see are in the electronic functioning of the brain. We can also now see how the human brain is almost the same as other higher species, and there is no soul part that is unique to humans, other than the illusions of our advanced society.

  • conjurehealing

    I see no scientific arguments, articles, cases or any reports that make the conclusive claim that the Soul can be sought in the human brain. Some religions claim that the seat of the Soul is in the heart. Perhaps one could scan the physical heart to look for it! This suggests to me that the materialists don’t know where to look, or how to “see” this phenomenon, so they say that it doesn’t exist! Very limited perspective. Metaphysics and materialism are never happy bedfellows. I have enjoyed the conversation here, I thank you.

  • Jim Reed

    They might be on to something here. Perhaps the internet and other AI tools are giving them a more appropriate way to do their duty to develop a relationship with God. The scriptures are too static, and too obviously non-divine to help much, and with new AI enhancement at least they have some chance of making progress.

  • nightgaunt

    You can see the activity in the human brain. You can quantify that and what is done with it. Not with the “soul” which has nothing to offer.

    You can see no distinction which is your problem.