In an Android World, ‘Humans’ Is Real and Terrifying

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Gemma Chan in the role of Anita in AMC's 'Humans.' Des Willie/Kudos

Back in 2005, elusive French electronica pioneers Daft Punk crawled out of hermitdom and released an album entitled Human After All. The pair had already been hailed as analog prodigies thanks to dance floor staples like “Harder Better Faster Stronger,” yet critics at the time were split on the pair’s eponymous new single from the album, which featured a robotic voice repeatedly spouting three words—human after all—for nearly six minutes. Ten years later, it’s clear that Daft Punk’s punchy coda was not intended to be interpreted as a lyric, but instead as a mantra. And as we lurch toward a future of increasingly less face time and more FaceTime, it’s since evolved into a question: What does it mean to be human?

Given that artificial intelligence becomes more lifelike with each passing day (and will likely outlive us humans), it’s becoming more difficult to know the answer. Yet the new psychological drama mini-series Humans, which premiered June 28 on AMC, forces viewers to drop their iPhones and grapple with this ever-shifting idea of humanity. Set in an alternate-present London, everything about the Humans universe is the same as ours, save for one thing: Humans employ hyper-productive robots called “Synths” as nannies, gardeners, cleaners and caretakers. While these Synths look and talk like humans, they couldn’t be more alien. They stand at attention, prohibited from feeling, initiating physical contact without a direct order or talking back to their makers.

But what happens when one of these seemingly emotionless Synths says something approaching the axis of what might be a feeling? Are they capable of being more than they’re programmed to be? They just might. At its core, Humans follows a rogue clan of “corrupted” Synths, led by Synths Max and Leo, who set out to rescue their robo-buddies who were stolen and trafficked to perform manual labor jobs: namely, Anita (Gemma Chan), now working as a nanny for the Hawkins family, Niska (Emily Berrington), trapped as a sex worker in a brothel, and Fred (Sope Dirisu), who’s now picking fruit; to frame the show.

Before production, the actors playing Synths spent months unlearning human behaviors, including walking and breathing. Gemma Chan says she enrolled in a “Synth school,” in which actors worked with a choreographer to re-learn sitting, standing and talking in a way that was other-than-human, to become Anita.

“It came down to the fact that, with Synths, they’re ultimately machines that run on battery power, so there has to be an economy and efficiency and grace to everything,” Chan says. Anita in particular presented a conundrum, as the bot toes a peculiar line between artificial and actual intelligence. “I play a Synth possibly showing some human qualities developing throughout the course of the show, and [the challenge] was finding a way of conveying emotion in a non-human way,” Chan says. “But I physically wasn’t allowed to cry.”

The U.K./American hybrid miniseries comes from the brains of Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent (Spooks), who, perhaps in following with a contemporary cultural craze for adapting Scandinavian noir stories to domestic screens, adapted the series from Lars Lundstrom’s critically acclaimed network Swedish series Real Humans. While Humans draws from ideas present in the original Swedish version, it also draws out several interlacing storylines to probe the “darker, dimmer” areas of humanity, according to Brackley. “We wanted to show a broad span of this world. That’s what interested us so much about the original. There’s so many fantastic and wonderful ideas about AI and the future [in Real Humans] and we thought we could bring our own take to it,” he says. With Lundstrom’s blessing, the pair then worked with AMC in the United States and Channel 4 for the adaptation, and shot the show last winter in England.

One of the narratives the pair drew out had to do with Synths infiltrating the most intimate of spaces: the domestic sphere. When husband Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) surprises his wife, Laura (Katherine Parkinson), with the Synth as a way to assuage the pressures of her demanding job (and, in turn, their marriage), Laura immediately gets the heebie-jeebies from Anita, who says and does uncanny things. For instance, Anita is enthralled by a house spider she finds and excitedly shows Laura her discovery. Unbeknownst to Anita, Laura has a phobia of spiders—or does Anita know and she's passive-aggressively acting out against her primary user? “I won’t forget that you don’t like spiders, Laura” Anita grins, as Laura, horrified, shuts the door and questions her sanity. Given these kinds of interactions, the family begins to splinter almost immediately when Anita arrives, from angsty teen genius Mattie (Lucy Carless) resenting her mother’s so-called parental slacking, to horny tween Toby (Theo Stevenson) finding himself attracted to Anita, to toddler Sophie (Pixie Davis) mistaking the bot for a friend she can cuddle with, even though Anita isn’t allowed to hug her -- though the Synth breaks code and does anyway.

Yet one of the thrills in watching Humans comes from how these very themes have been emerging in real-time, from Stephen Hawking warning of artificial intelligence’s inevitable doom and even robotics fanboy Elon Musk, of Tesla/SpaceX, deeming AI as the biggest current existential threat to humanity. “The crux of the issue is whether or not we’ll ever understand ethics,” says William Hurt, who stars in Humans as Dr. Millican, one of the engineers responsible for developing Synth technology. “Mercedes Benz is talking proudly about making cars [that drive] themselves, but they’re going to put three million Americans out of work -- where are their families going to go? That’s just the beginning of this cascade of how our lives are going to be reshaped and remodeled and reformed. Perhaps saved, but perhaps destroyed by it,” he says.

It’s not a coincidence either that Humans demonstrates how overzealous attempts to use artificial intelligence come with an unexpected price tag: the deviation of real-world relationships. Which is perhaps not so distant from how machines are currently affecting how we engage with ourselves and others in the here and now. “Our ability to focus on one thing? Gone. We are changing the biology and physiology of our brains and bodies with this technology,” Chan says. Think about things ubiquitous to 2015, like the dating app Tinder—which is shifting how we interact with other human beings —and the accessibility of online pornography, which is shifting expectations of sexual performance and bodily perfection.

This is precisely the synthetic-driven world that Humans presents: one in which the pursuit of convenience and productivity contains an immeasurable human cost. And yet, when the show has Synths doing jobs harder, better, faster and stronger than humans, a different underbelly of criminal activity emerges: Many of the robots are subsequently being stolen, taken apart and re-programmed for lascivious means. At times, Humans taps into a nascent anxiety of extinction, a notion perhaps put best by Synth Anita's owner, teenage hacking prodigy Maddie, when she’s caught red-handed attempting to re-program a blue-blooded Synth janitor at her high school: “Why would I have a problem with something that’s making my existence pointless?”

The reality is that we can’t stop the barreling forward of technology. The bots are already writing local news and practicing law, and while cynics might walk away from watching Humans with the notion that we unwittingly created our own successors, there’s something valuable to be learned about humanity in watching it. The show displays Synths not so much as artificial beings but as a foil for people, becoming less the classic narrative of the “robot takeover” and more a salient commentary on how certain groups throughout our own history have suffered at the hands of another group that believes them to be sub-human. While the many kinks and implications of artificial intelligence have yet to be resolved, Humans might be the necessary thing to spark conversations about how we can remain sentient and compassionate amidst an increasingly disposable, digitized world. One might even say that’s human.