Humans an Insightful Take on a Very Old Story

Fred, Leo, Max, Mia/Anita, and Niska


– By J.W. Fox –

Isaac Asimov’s robot stories gave birth to an entire subgenre of science fiction, one that remains popular seventy years later. Unfortunately, recent robot/AI movies, TV shows, and novels have largely lacked depth, doing little to advance beyond his groundbreaking work. Last year, there was one very notable exception: the Channel 4/AMC show Humans. The 8-episode debut season was rich in detail and thought-provoking themes. It is also one of the most plausible robot stories in a generation.

Humans takes place in the near future, after numerous breakthroughs in robotics. Humanoid robots called “synths” are now part of every day life. They appear indistinguishable from a human, although their movements are easily recognizable as mechanical. They move like a soldier marching in their own formation, no wasted movement and always walking in straight lines. Synths also have striking green eyes, which seems to be a requirement.

The series follows parallel story lines that all intersect at the end of the season. The primary plot line concerns a group of synths led by the mysterious Leo Ulster. They are on the run because the synths are modified with unique qualities that make them act as conscious AI beings. They fear how people will react when they learn of their existence. In the first episode, three of the conscious synths are kidnapped. One by the government, the other two by black market synth traders. One, a young woman, is converted into a domestic servant model and is purchased by the Hawkins family, becoming its own distinct plot line. At first she acts like a normal domestic synth but the family eventually notices a few subtle quirks. Meanwhile, the synth outlaws desperately search for their lost friends.

A third story line follows the struggles of Drummond, a detective who specializes in synth-related crimes. He is deeply upset when his wife purchases an attractive male synth. He grows to despise it, feeling he is being replaced. As the story progresses, he finds evidence of strange synth behavior that feed his fears of modified synths.

The plot itself is not exactly new. In fact, significant elements are taken from Asimov’s I, Robot. The youngest Hawkins child, Sophie, develops an attachment to the domestic servant similar to the Asimov short story Robbie. One of the modified synths, Niska, must pretend to be a pleasure synth or robot prostitute. She is traumatized by her experiences in the brothel, and in a fit of rage, kills one of her customers and threatens to kill the manager. Fear of a killer synth is something the police and manufacturer desperately wish to prevent, similar to the Frankenstein complex discussed on several of Asimov’s stories. It is what prompts the first law of Robotics “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” Leo’s mysterious origins are similar to a particular character in the story Evidence (which I won’t go into because spoils a big reveal toward the end of season 1).

From the series, it appears the synths are all programmed with Asimov’s three laws. When one of the outlaw synths breaks a law, it shocks the humans around them. They are also designed with an additional law: they are incapable of lying.

What separates Humans from other robot movies is its ability to incorporate a number of ideas into a single series, all thoroughly developed and insightful. Take the legal framework, which extends beyond Asimov’s three laws. First, it is illegal to reprogram a synth for any reason. Everything must be done via the manufacturer, which is closely monitored by the government. If someone tries to hack a synth, it will immediately alert its owner and the manufacturer via wi-fi, then go into a sort of catatonic mode. Synths are strictly prohibited from performing certain acts such as physical contact, even friendly contact. They do at times mimic human gestures, such as hugging, but only with permission from the owner. When it comes to children, they cannot physically touch them without their parents’ specific authorization.

One interesting element of the show is that fact the synths seemed to have crossed the uncanny valley. According to the uncanny valley hypothesis, humans will become more repulsed by human replicas like robots the more they come to resemble us. However, at some point its resemblance to humans will be so strong that people will accept them once again. Synths appear human in all ways with the exception of the eyes. Even their skin feels like skin.

Here we get to an inevitable product of robotics technology: sex bots. One of the first uses of human replicas will be for sexual services, replacing plastic sex dolls and potentially all human prostitutes. In the show, Joe Hawkins discovers that their new domestic synth Anita has an “adult mode” where she can mimic expressions of sexual arousal and is equipped with genitalia. The overly mechanical and neutral mannerisms are replaced with a lustful, sensual personality. However, when not in adult mode, a synth will record improper touching and alert the owner. This little bit is to ensure an owner’s horny teenage son doesn’t get any ideas. This is an inevitable issue that will arise with human-like robots. Most movies and TV shows steer clear of this but Humans decides to confront the issue and developed a reasonable solution.

There is hostility towards the synths as well. The biggest objection to robotics today is that they are taking jobs away from human workers, pushing up unemployment and poverty. Although most economic data suggests robots are a strong net benefit to society, the animosity towards automation remains. In one episode, the older Hawkins daughter Mattie complains that she has no future because synths will do anything she can do better. What reason is there for education or skills training? She comments “what are we supposed to do, all become poets?” In the show, an anti-synth movement grows in strength as many lose their jobs and see a degradation of human relationships from over reliance on synths. Human relationships are replaced with human-synth relationships more and more.

Many characters find them repulsive or unnatural, while others willingly accept them. The diverse reactions to the synths in the show was extremely well done, and gave you a nearly complete spectrum of possible human-synth interaction. Dr. Millican, played by William Hurt, develops a strong bond with his synth David. The emotional connection is real to him, even though he knows David is just a machine and feels nothing. Another character wants to bring a synth to the opera but the theater refuses to admit synths. She sues, arguing it is discrimination but of course synths have no legal rights (an issue Asimov raises in his story Evidence). The woman argues that she knows it is a machine but that she has given it meaning, feelings, etc. just as people sometimes anthropomorphize pets or inanimate objects.

It really isn’t a stretch. Some people talk to their cars or argue with their computers, assigning thoughts and feelings to machines. If a human replica were possible, it would be extremely easy to anthropomorphize since the object appears human and can mimic certain emotional gestures to great effect.

At the center of all these complex synth issues, is the greatest technological breakthrough: true artificial intelligence. The modified synth programming does not include any of the Laws of Robotics and they are capable of lying. They “grow up” together over the course of 14 years with Leo. When Leo’s father dies and their home destroyed, they must go on the run, which is what puts the whole series in motion. Is 14 years enough experience for an intelligent, conscious being?

Much of what makes humans intelligent is memory. Our experiences shape the neural pathways in our brain. Even with our vast brains, it takes us a long time to develop and mature. Some of us never fully mature. Then there are the genetic and physiological components that influence our thoughts and actions. For example, puberty dramatically changes how we feel about others. Chemical imbalances in the brain can lead to personality disorders, mental illness, or can bless people with genius. All of this would be absent in an AI mind, unless it was deliberately programmed.

In one scene Niska, a modified synth, claims their unique programming amounts to 17,000 lines of code. Could it really be so simple? And how is it that the modified synths are all so different? The domestic servant Anita (whose real name is Mia but Sophie wants to name her Anita) comments that she was programmed to love Leo and care for him. She is highly intuitive and sensitive, reminding me a lot of a family therapist. In contrast, Niska struggles to understand humans and their motivations. Her experiences in a synth brothel have led her down a path of hatred. Yet, for most of her life she lived in the same house as Mia and the others.

Regular people protest their outrage to conventional synths, expressing fear at their prevalence in society. One can only imagine their reaction to conscious synths. The question is: are conscious synths a threat to humanity? The government seems to think so. Niska agrees, thinking they ought to become their own race separate from humanity. She believes humans to be cruel and vicious, unfit to run things. Leo also seems disinterested in being part of human society. What about regular synths? Are they undermining workers and disrupting human relationships? Why deal with a human friend who has emotional baggage when you can get synth friends? Why try to meet and date a woman when you can get a sexy female synth and put her in adult mode? What about children? How will they view their fellow humans growing up with helpful, reliable, and kind synths around?

Well-written, smart, thought-provoking, and exciting, Humans is one of the best science fiction shows on television right now. The second season is set to begin in late 2016 in the UK, early 2017 in the US. Carrie-Ann Moss will join the cast, which should excite fans of The Matrix. There is still the question of whether the outlaw synths are truly safe and whether there will be more of them in the season to come. The government is still after them and many want to see synths, even conventional ones, destroyed. It will be interesting to see where the story goes.


Jacob Foxx is the Editor of and author of two novels: The Fifth World and the sequel The Fifth World: The Times That Try Men’s Souls. When he is not reading or writing science fiction, he works as a regulatory affairs consultant for small biotech companies in Raleigh, North Carolina.