Humans Continues to Shine as Best AI/Robot Show on Television

– By J. W. Fox –


After two seasons, Humans has firmly established itself as the top AI/robot show on television and may eventually become one of the best of all time. After gaining attention in its first season for a smart plot and quality writing, Humans extended its reach in the second season, taking on synth rights and transferring of human consciousness. If you are a sci-fi fan and are not watching this show, you need to get on the bandwagon pronto!

After the incredible events of the previous season finale, the Hawkins family tries to move back to a normal middle class life. Little Sophie still misses Mia and has developed a powerful, perhaps dysfunctional, affinity for synths. Joe and Laura are in couples therapy, where the therapist is a synth. All things considered, the Hawkins seem to be doing just fine… until Niska shows up at their door.

The Niska Hearing: The Amistad of the Future

The fugitive synth fled to Germany where she fell in love with a human woman named Astrid. That’s right, we have a relationship that transcends all current gender issues: a human-synth relationship. The LGBTQ acronym will need another letter soon. Her first intense emotional connection with a human awakens feelings of guilt about the man she killed. She returns to England and asks Laura Hawkins to help her get a criminal trial rather than merely be destroyed like any malfunctioning synth.

Their efforts were obviously doomed from the start. First, it was not a public hearing, which could’ve generated sympathy and support for Niska. In secrecy, the government can simply take the path of least resistance. That path is obviously to destroy Niska. Second, even if the hearing was fair, there was absolutely no precedent or process by which one could determine consciousness or sentience. The law has procedures for determining competency, sanity, and mental capacity to tell right from wrong. They come up when the defendant is mentally ill or very young.

Neither applies to Niska. Her chances of success were slim at best.

The question for equal rights for a special class is very similar to the struggle of slaves during the 19th century. At that time, racial inequality was commonplace throughout the world. A series of liberal movements, starting with the abolitionists, fought to dismantle institutional inequality until those of different races and cultures were treated equally under the law. The struggle of the synths is reminiscent of the mutiny on the Amistad and the subsequent trial (See Spielberg’s movie Amistad).

In that case, a group of African slaves took over a Spanish ship, which found its way to US waters. The slave trade was illegal at that time but the Spanish owners of the vessel still claimed the slaves as their legal property. It was a test case for abolitionists to see if they could fight to get the Africans standing as legal persons in US Courts. The Supreme Court ruled the Africans were not property and were illegally kidnapped. In the end, they were returned to Africa.

The case ended in 1841, twenty years before the Civil War and twenty-four years before slavery was abolished. It carefully avoided striking at the institution of slavery but did set the first precedent of treating African slaves as persons and not property. It appears the synths are also in that very early stage of their fight for equality.

What is Consciousness?

Science fiction has take on this issue before. It has been on the minds of authors and visionaries for some time, yet we have gone a very long time without a real compelling examination. Westworld built its concept of AI consciousness around an obscure scientific theory called bicameralism, a theory unsupported by the scientific community. The show gets credit for originality but its approach to consciousness is probably built more metaphorical or dramatic purposes, rather than thought provocation.

In most other stories, writers want the question to come down to feelings, which is great for dramatic purposes but has no intellectual merit. Animals have feelings yet the law does not consider them legal persons, let alone conscious. Sadly, Niska’s hearing fixated on her feelings as the evidentiary basis for consciousness. The investigators seemed to be looking for some physical or verbal response to stimuli. Not exactly the Turing Test.

It was disappointing that the hearing took such a low-end approach to determining consciousness but it was realistic for the government to treat her as a problem and railroad her hearing.

The Synth Revolution

The rest of the synth family tries to stay hidden rather than lead some sort of revolution. Leo and Max travel the world trying to save the synths that are becoming conscious. Mia gets a job at a small ice cream shop so that she can still spend time around humans. She is a “people-synth” after all. In another sad twist of events, the man of her dreams betrays her when he learns her true nature. Mia’s faith in humanity stalls and she too becomes an advocate for full revolution.

There is a debate among the synths over how to bring about liberation. Max believes in a peaceful, non-violent movement where synths act to prove they are not a threat to humanity. His approach is similar to Gandhi’s movement in India (which Max cites during an argument with Hester), and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If he were the leader, the synths would join in marches and conduct protests of civil disobedience.

Leo and Mia agree with the approach at first but see an opportunity as more synths become conscious throughout the world.

Then there is Hester, one of the newly conscious synths. Her experiences with humanity and her developing personality move her towards ruthlessness and hatred. Hester believes synths and humans are already at war, and does not see any reason to abide by any moral or ethical constraints. She is not interested in proving anything to the humans, she sees them as less than synth. I think she would qualify as psychopathic, lacking empathy or a conscience.

She wants full revolution and some sort of separation from humanity. Coexistence isn’t an option.

Hester’s approach inevitably fails because she is ill-equipped to fight humans the human way. We’ve had millennia of practice and are 7 billion strong. Her anti-social tendencies also make it impossible for her to work within a cohesive group or movement. Her character is a way of showing that, like humans, not all synths are moral beings. Some are psychopaths just as there are psychopaths among humans.

Hester and Niska

In season one, Niska was the one who deeply distrusted, even hated humanity. It was so deep she killed a man in a fit of rage. Yet she is not a psychopath. Her anger comes from her direct experience with humans and the lack of any positive contact. It is not until she meets Dr. Millican (William Hurt) and later the Hawkins family, that she sees humans are not all monsters. It also becomes apparent she has a conscience and struggles with what she has done.

Not Hester. She lacks any conscience, even commenting she does not feel guilty about killing. Niska was able to let go of that murderous hate and developed a moral code of her own. Hester did neither.

Karen’s Struggle

Karen, the suicidal member of the synth family, continues her relationship with Peter but has serious identity issues. She wants to continue the lie and try to be human, while Peter wants to help her become accepted as synth one day. Karen’s struggle is more similar to the struggle of homosexuals in Western societies. She is already integrated into society and accepted as human. If she were to “come out” as synth, society would be forced to confront one of its own members, one it had previously accepted.

In season one, she is suicidal, living a life of painful loneliness. Her affection for Peter and the fateful reunion with Leo’s family, she finds the will to live… only to lose it again. She feels a relationship with Peter cannot work, as she wishes to remain in the synth closet. It felt as if Karen was giving up too quickly and easily, returning to her depressed lonely state. When Peter dies, it is the adoption of a child synth named Sam that brings her back… sort of.

Overall, her character arc has been disappointing. It is difficult to discern whether Karen’s character has changed or progressed in any meaningful way. Instead, it seems she has rehashed earlier struggles in a different, less compelling way.

Transferring Consciousness

Then there are the new characters: Carrie-Anne Moss plays Dr. Athena Morrow, an AI expert who is approached by some huge tech-tycoon to start work on these newly conscious synths. Morrow is more interested in transferring consciousness from a hard drive to a synth. And not just any consciousness, her dead daughter. Morrow fails in her attempt to bring her daughter back but also ensures the tech-tycoon cannot learn the secrets of synth consciousness.

Dr. Morrow added a whole new AI theme, that of transferring of consciousness. Somehow, Dr. Morrow took brain scans of her daughter while she was dying in the hospital, and used them to create an artificial simulation of her consciousness. This is another awesome theme that science fiction writers have examined in the past but have not been able to really put out a truly great story. The personal pain and tragedy of Dr. Morrow felt real, but the simulation of her daughter did not. For most of the season, the simulation did not know it was Dr. Morrow’s daughter at all. I wanted to hear more from her.

Hopefully, the Dr. Morrow story arc is not over.

What comes Next?

Well, thanks to Mattie, all the synths are conscious now. The life-giving code was broadcasted to all of them. The moral question of whether to do it or not wasn’t really explored much. She chose to send it out to save Mia’s life, even if it meant a violent human-synth war. While touching in that respect, it was deeply irresponsible in another. There will be no ordered or unifying synth revolution. Some will follow Max’s path of non-violence, while others will almost certainly follow Hester’s violent uprising approach. Chaos is certain to follow.

Leo is dying, his synth components severely damaged. While I think the show could survive the loss of Leo, I think his status as a hybrid and that fact that he is the son of the creator, puts him in perfect position to be the unifying leader of the synth revolution. He could bridge the gap.

Will Karen go through yet another existential crisis and attempt suicide yet again? I’m not that interested. Honestly, this subplot is losing its appeal.

Have we heard the last of Dr. Morrow and her daughter? Probably not. What about Milo and his Qualia empire?

And who fired Joe Hawkins? Mattie learned that a bunch of synths fired him without any human making the decision. They aren’t supposed to have that ability or authority. What is going on there? Who programmed that synth to confront Laura and tell her to drop the case? The whole thing was classified and done in secret, so only a party involved in the hearing could have done it. Would the government really stoop that low?

Season three comes in 2018. Not soon enough.


J. W. Fox is the Editor of and author of two novels under the pen name Jacob Foxx: 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.