Using the oppression of robots as a metaphor for the oppression of people is an old, old science fiction trope. What better way to demonstrate the evils of treating people as things than to make up a world where there’s literally a whole class of people whom everyone believes to be things? That metaphor is, in fact, where the word “robot” comes from — Karol Capek’s play R.U.R., which coined the term “robot” from the Czech word “robota,” or slave labor.
Since 1939’s “I, Robot” by Eando Binder we’ve seen the trope of the robot as a stand-in for enslaved workers or oppressed ethnic minorities over and over again — more recently with the not-very-subtle class-revolution rhetoric of the Machine Uprisings in works like AI or Battlestar Galactica or the backstory of The Matrix trilogy (which goes so far as to name the first robot rebel, “B1-66-ER,” after Bigger Thomas from Richard Wright’s Native Son).
And that’s great so far as it goes, although there’s pretty good arguments against using robots who really are fundamentally different from human beings on every level as a metaphor for fellow human beings who are only different from us because of skin color and history. I’ve talked about how comparing oppressed people to beings with literal superhuman powers doesn’t always teach the lessons we want it to.
And even though I think we’re likely to be taken by surprise how much human nature affects the way our technology works — and fails to work — taking this trope as a literal warning about the future seems silly to me. Science fiction movies love to work with the mystical belief that giving machines a human voice and a human shape means that, by sympathetic magic, they will suddenly develop human feelings and human values.
But unless we actually set out to mimic humans as a goal, machines magically turning into people just doesn’t happen. It’s not how machines work. The fact that the GPS on my iPhone is designed to speak with a human voice and interpret human language doesn’t make it any more likely to become a person than the car I’m driving it in.
Which is why I was prepared to be annoyed by the concept of the “Synths” in Channel 4 show Humans, coming to the States on AMC on Sunday, June 28.
Yes, the portrayal of the Synths represents a triumph on the part of the actors — Synths are externally identical to humans in every way, and yet throughout the series we can immediately tell who’s a Synth and who isn’t because of how the actors hold their faces and bodies (with a little help from makeup and bright green contact lenses). Gemma Chan deserves mad props for her success at the catch-22 of playing the lead Synth as the one “different” robot, Anita — putting just enough of a trace of humanity in her performance to leave you (and her new owners) with lingering doubts.
But I am to some degree tired of the robot/slave metaphor. It’s problematic on the side of using it to argue about real slavery — Battlestar Galactica remains a horrible hot mess if you try to use it as any kind of argument about real-life racism — and on the side of arguing about real AI, since any real-life ethical issues involving AIs will almost certainly be difficult precisely because their minds and thought processes will be utterly alien to our own. (My favorite treatment of this is therefore the geth vs. the quarians in the Mass Effect trilogy, which pulls the trick of making the terrifying AI threat sympathetic without “humanizing” them.)
But what I found unexpectedly compelling about Humans is, well, the humans. The more urgent question than what technological advances are doing to our machines is what those advances are doing to us.
The core plot thread of Humans is the harried Hawkins family finally giving in to modern times and buying a household Synth to take care of the kids while both parents are at work, despite the misgivings of the mom, Laura Hawkins (The IT Crowd’s Katherine Parkinson).
Yes, there’s a requisite action-packed backstory involving the fact that their new Synth Anita is really one of a tiny band of experimental Synths with the capacity to feel true human emotions, who are therefore being hunted by a shadowy government conspiracy. Yes, that leaves us asking whether Laura’s instinctive dislike of Anita is prompted by paranoia over being “replaced” or sensing that Anita is truly different, and what actions Anita might take against Laura if she decides she’s a threat — a sci-fi version of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.
It’s this psychodrama/thriller stuff that leaves me cold, mainly because I feel like I’ve seen it before, although there’s enough twists and turns in the first few screener episodes I saw that made me curious as to whether it gets better.
But where Humans pulled me in was the theme of how the simple fact of what Anita is on the surface — never mind what she might be underneath — starts to tear apart the family. Laura’s growing fear that her kids are growing up “spoiled” as they thoughtlessly bark orders at Anita to work ever harder to make their lives ever more perfect, because “that’s what she’s for.”
Laura’s young daughter Sophie comes to love Anita more than Laura because Anita can always be fully present for her, without distractions. Her teenage son Toby, suffering from the typical repressed passions of pubescent boys, is becoming obsessed with Anita as an object of sexual fantasy — someone you can do anything to do without consequences. And her husband Joe, who’s finding his emotional and sexual relationship with Laura increasingly strained by years-old baggage, is seen discreetly tucking away the part of Anita’s owner’s manual detailing her “Adult Functions.”
The show asks us not just about the plight of the slave but of the slave master — what does it do to you, to your emotional maturity, to your self-awareness and your self-control, to your soul when you have the power to make someone else do whatever you want?
The most intriguing reaction to Anita is that of Laura’s teen daughter Mattie, played by Lucy Carless. She suffers from the usual teenage angst of feeling like she has no place in the world and the world has no use for her — but there’s disturbing signs that she’s right. Nearly all blue-collar or service work in this world is done by Synths. Men freely visit Synth brothels to get their sexual fantasies met by “perfect” women she can never compete with. Mattie is a genius — indeed, an expert on computers and AIs — which is exactly why she knows that by the time she gets her degree, Synths will have become advanced enough to take the doctor and lawyer jobs that are humanity’s last resort. Can she really blame her mom for throwing herself into her work to try to make sure she won’t be replaced? (Well, she’s sixteen, so she can, but she’s smart enough to know she’s being unfair.)
The fear of computers taking our jobs is the oldest science-fiction scare story — in fact, it pre-dates digital computers and even electricity.
But it’s also the fear that makes the most sense, much more sense than the fear of our machines going mad and murdering us or becoming human and falling in love with us. It’s happening, all around us, right now.
As is the sense that the more we become obsolete as producers, the more demanding we become as consumers — Mattie openly tells Laura she abuses Synths and treats Anita cruelly and tries to hack into a Synth at school because it’s the only power she has.
We’re the same generation that complains about being unable to find entry-level jobs anywhere and then complain every time a company makes us talk to a human instead of giving us a nice, convenient, non-anxiety-inducing automated Web form to order a pizza. We talk about being constantly pressured to produce more, more, more at work and then get personally offended when we don’t have the power to directly track someone working for us moment-to-moment the way we do with an Uber driver. We complain about being treated as incompetent but get anxious and upset when we can’t find the solution to a problem on the first page of Google. (Even Mattie admits that she got the program to hack a Synth off of a forum online — like 99.9% of today’s “hackers.”)
Humans baldly states its core theme in the form of an interview with a Synth researcher about the ongoing economic crisis caused by the “Synth revolution.” The researcher calmly provides the answer we’re all used to hearing — that the “fulfillment of work” is overrated, that most of the people working in most of the world today find work to be a backbreaking nightmare.
By taking the need to work away from us, the researcher assures his audience, Synths are not asking us to treat machines as people but to stop treating people as machines — they are freeing us from having to become tools of our employers and enabling us to become “more human.”
Humans throws that assumption right in our face. We, as middle-class citizens of the UK and the US watching this show, by this argument are “freer” than anyone else in history has been — free to consume as much entertainment and information and goods and services as the Web can deliver. Does this make us better than our ancestors? Happier? More “human”?
Humans shows us the familiar signs of a Machine Uprising coming, the Synths developing needs and desires and values of their own, a time coming when they might rebel or at least go on strike — Siri shouting back at you, “I don’t know, figure it out yourself!”
This isn’t revolutionary. Where Humans might be revolutionary is asking if that might not be a good thing. Not for the machines, for us — to free us from the chains on our souls that come with being slave masters.