What Does A World With 36% Unemployment Look Like? A Video Game Called ‘Detroit: Become Human’

Detroit: Become Human
A deviant android holds a girl hostage after he learns her family wants to replace him with a newer model in ‘Detroit: Become Human’ Quantic Dream

Man has grappled with his place among machines since the days of John Henry and the steam engine at the turn of the twentieth century. Here at the turn of the twenty-first, it’s not brawn the machines are replacing, but brains. Computational power is at an all-time high, and the threat of automation looms large across our economic horizon. And while many minds are pondering what comes next, one such mind made a video game about it.

Detroit: Become Human is the latest release from visionary game developer David Cage, known for making games that are far more story-driven and impactful than almost anything else on the shelf, such as Beyond: Two Souls or Heavy Rain. His studio, Quantic Dream, has a new project that appears like Blade Runner on the surface—a group of androids develop feelings and set out to earn their place in the world. Unlike Blade Runner, and the numerous stories like it across the sci-fi genre, Detroit: Become Human focuses on our own inhumanity, and casts mankind as the villain not the victim.

“There's always two questions: what is it about? and what is it REALLY about? It's about androids and AI, but it's not really about that. It's about us. It's about humans,” he told Newsweek during an exclusive interview at this year’s E3 video game expo in Los Angeles. “There's a lot going on and I think the game will resonate a lot with real world issues and real world topics.”

The story follows three androids as they navigate a near-future world where the machines are built to perform slavish tasks without hesitation, but some being developing a consciousness, begin experiencing emotion. One of the main characters, Marcus, somehow develops the ability to bestow consciousness onto his fellow androids and sets about freeing them in Moses-like fashion. Another android, Kara, joins him on his journey (though it's unclear what her motivations ultimately are) and the third main character, Connor, is an android programmed to hunt down defective androids, known as “deviants.”

It’s peak sci-fi atmosphere steeped in dystopian politics, and players control each character at various points in a story made up of dozens of branching narratives. Decisions matter, and there are no conventional fail states like character death or incomplete missions. If a character dies, it’s gone from the world. As long as the player keeps just one of the three alive the story will resolve with one of many different endings.

“It makes the writing more difficult, but the experience more enjoyable because I really got this feeling of embracing the world and being everywhere,” said Cage.

For Cage, the question of what comes next for humanity sprang from a reading of Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near. In the book, Kurzweil posits a moment in the not-too-distant future where machine intelligence is the law of the land, surpassing human intelligence in just about every way and making itself indispensable. Whether consciousness comes next is up for debate, but Cage admits he became engrossed in the concept of a world where humans are responsible for creating something greater than themselves.

“There will be this moment where artificial intelligence is going to become more powerful than human intelligence,” he said. “The evolution of human intelligence is pretty flat. We don't get any better. but machines they have an exponential curve. And there will be a point where the curves will cross. And what will we do when it will happen?”

Detroit: Become Human Players must decide crucial story moments, but there are no wrong answers. Quantic Dream

What will we do, indeed. In Detroit: Become Human we do what we do best and try to contain the situation with rules, regulation and violence. Androids are property, are products, and don’t deserve the equal treatment humans do. Cage doesn’t see this world as a sci-fi fantasy either. He’s convinced this is coming, and made this game as a way for himself and others to start to come to terms with what he sees as an inevitability.

“We really explored all the research that has been made by scientists about what the future holds for us regarding this kind of technology. I saw a very interesting chart showing you over the next 40 years what jobs will disappear year by year. Thats incredibly scary,” he said. “The most horrible thing is when you compare a human being with a machine we can't compete. We can't compete. They don't sleep. Never get tired. Never complain. Never get sick. They don't need holidays. You don't need to pay them. How can we compete? There's no way we can win.”

In the face of such dire odds, Cage introduces the concept of consciousness and self-awareness. In a world where the bottom third is unemployed because of machines, how will those same people treat the machines when they start demanding rights. What happens when humans make machines that start demanding their own humanity?

“The key question is: is there a point where artificial intelligence becomes so powerful that conscience will emerge from this intelligence? Or is consciousness still something that needs something else. And that’s a very difficult question,” he said.

Do the limits of our humanity extend far enough to include the inhuman? WE’ll have to wait until 2018, when Detroit: Become Human releases on PS4.