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.