The terms ‘robot’ and ‘android’ are common words in science fiction, yet the idea of creating life from the materials around us predates the genre itself. From the giant Talos of Greek myth, fashioned from bronze, to the experiments of Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s seminal 19th century novel, right up to recent films such as Prometheus and Transcendence, we’ve remained fascinated by the idea of artificial life.
It’s a fascination that lies at the heart of Almost Human, writer and creator JH Wyman’s US television series making its debut in the UK this month. Set in the year 2048, it depicts a near-future world where technology is evolving so quickly, its law enforcement agencies can barely keep up with the new weapons and narcotics flowing into American cities. To combat the overwhelming rise of high-tech crime, ordinary human cops are partnered with battle-ready androids.
Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban) is one such cop, whose violent confrontation with a gang of criminals has left him with a synthetic leg and a lasting hatred towards artificial humans. Returning to duty after a lengthy spell in a coma, Kennex is paired up with Dorian (Michael Ealy), an earlier form of police android that was quietly retired due to his unpredictable programming. But where the later, MX-43 androids are deemed to be more reliable due to their cold logic, the supposed flaws in Dorian’s programming put him at an advantage as a detective: unlike his successors, Dorian has the ability to make intuitive decisions based on his emotional responses. Or, as he puts it, “The MXs, they have no intuition, or as you would call it, no soul. To them, memory is just recorded data.”
Almost Human‘s first episode is classic buddy-cop thriller stuff: Kennex is initially wary of his new partner, but the pair grow to trust and respect one another through the course of their investigations. Within that framework, though, Almost Human explores similar ideas and themes prevalent in science fiction touchstones like Blade Runner. Karl Urban’s grouchy cop is cut from a similar cloth to Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard, in that his harsh, world-weary exterior contrasts with Dorian’s affable, gentle demeanour.
As in Philip K Dick’s source novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep (1968), Blade Runner’s Deckard is a bounty hunter whose job is to hunt down and ‘retire’ any artificial humans (or ‘replicants’) who’ve illegally made their way to Earth. Led by Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the replicants are initially portrayed from Deckard’s perspective – that is, violent and seemingly lacking empathy. Yet as the film progresses, we begin to view the narrative more and more from Batty’s viewpoint, until we come to realise that he’s just as emotionally complex as Deckard, if not more so.
In Almost Human’s debut instalment, Kennex displays almost as much contempt for artificial humans (he frequently uses the term ‘synthetics’, a term Dorian despises) as Deckard does. At the same time, Kennex is partly a machine himself: without his synthetic leg, he’d be unable to continue working as a frontline cop. There are parallels here with Alex Proyas’ 2004 film I, Robot, in which Will Smith plays a detective with a cybernetic limb and a deep-seated distrust of androids. Despite his prejudices, the detective forges a bond of trust with Sonny (Alan Tudyk) a gentle robot falsely accused of murder.
Blade Runner, I, Robot and Almost Human all deal with similar themes. On one hand there’s the ethical question so frequently raised in science fiction: if we could create artificial life, what would our moral responsibility be towards it, and could we trust it? On the other, there’s an interrogation of our own moral failings as a species: our historical tendency to exploit, segregate and enslave.
Almost Human‘s techno-trust angst is embodied in the MX-43s, the emotionless, brutally efficient androids that look like us but behave like Star Wars Stormtroopers. Their remoteness and sterile logic sums up a collective distrust of technology that is as old as the industrial revolution: just as Frankenstein was killed by his own creation in Shelley’s novel, so sci-fi fiction has repeatedly thrown up such AI threats as Skynet in The Terminator series and Ash in Alien.
In recent years, the advent of drones have raised troubling questions about the future of warfare and law enforcement – as illustrated in professor Noel Sharkey’s chilling thought pieces – and Almost Human‘s MX-43s (not to mention the recent RoboCop remake) address these questions in a sci-fi context.
There is a flip side to those fears, however, and it can be seen all around us. Computers have long since migrated from our desks and nuzzled their way into our pockets. The commercial technology sold to us by Apple or Google is approachable and friendly. Our relationship with technology is familiar and intimate: we caress and stroke our smart phones and tablets like pets. Isn’t it just as likely that, if scientists were to make a breakthrough in artificial intelligence, the result would be something closer to Almost Human’s Dorian – compassionate and gentle?
There’s at least one scene in Almost Human‘s pilot episode where Dorian is shown to be more restrained and less violent than Kennex. “Just what I need,” Kennex scoffs when Dorian starts talking about a suspect’s human rights. “I got a bleeding heart synthetic.” Like Blade Runner or even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Almost Human implies that an artificial being could not only be stronger and faster than us, but also display more empathy and compassion.
Why is the notion of creating artificial life, whether it’s in a Greek legend or a modern sci-fi series, so perennially fascinating to us? Perhaps it’s because, by telling stories about beings made from metal, plastic or mud, we’re actually exploring our own human condition: what it means to be alive, why we mistreat or distrust each other, and what will remain of us when we die.
Only time will tell whether the MX-43s are as untrustworthy as they first appear, or how the unpredictable (almost human) programming inside Dorian will complicate things further down the line. But already, Almost Human’s future city of cybernetic limbs and synthetic humans is following in a sci-fi tradition that not only includes such genre staples as Frankenstein and Blade Runner, but also reaches further back into our earliest myths about the fear and wonder of creation.
Almost Human starts on Tuesday 6th of May on UKTV’s Watch (available on Sky, Virgin Media, Talk Talk TV and BT)
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