Humans: writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley interview

The writers of Channel 4's Humans, currently airing on Sunday nights, talk to us about AI, emotionally complex sci-fi, and series two...

“We’re more the speculative science fiction of ideas, the kind that doesn’t go to other galaxies but puts the scary weird idea right in your living room.” In Humans, currently airing on Channel 4 and AMC, that’s just what writers Sam Vincent and Jon Brackley have done.

Humans’ specific scary, weird idea is Synth Anita and others like her, uncannily humanoid robots brought into the homes and workplaces of the UK to serve as domestic servants and labourers. Not all Synths were created equal though, nor to be mere serfs, as Humans viewers are thrillingly beginning to find out.

We caught up with Vincent and Brackley over email to discuss the world of their smart, philosophically provocative series. Read on to see what inspired their adaptation of Swedish original, Äkta Människor, as well as chat about AI, creation myths, a potential second series, and why you won’t hear the words ‘milk float’ in Humans…

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AI seems to be in the cultural zeitgeist of late with films like Her, Ex Machina, The Machine, Chappie and Avengers: Age Of Ultron all dealing with the topic. Why do you think the subject has become so prevalent in fiction in recent years?

We blame Siri. Consumer technology has become so intuitive and communicative that we can almost interact with it like we do other people. It plays a growing role in our emotional lives – expressing ourselves through social media, dating apps etc. But as it becomes more user-friendly, it also becomes more mysterious and powerful. We have less idea how it really works than ever – and we’re not encouraged to find out. We’re not encouraged to start unscrewing our phones. Our technology seems to understand us more, even as we understand it less. That gap causes a curiosity and unease, we think, which is giving rise to this boom in AI stories. Which, as Alex Garland has noted, is happening in the absence of any real breakthroughs in “true AI”.

Do you think that TV audiences are becoming more receptive to emotionally complex sci-fi dramas like Humans and Black Mirror? If so, why?

People are always receptive to thinking about the future (and being scared/worried/thrilled/amused by it!), although it helps that both shows take place in largely recognisable worlds. There is a strain of resistance to sci-fi in British TV commissioning, but people who are nervous of the term usually actually mean “space opera” rather than “sci-fi”. We’re more the speculative science fiction of ideas, the kind that doesn’t go to other galaxies but puts the scary weird idea right in your living room.

Humans‘ emphasis on familial tension rather than action is what sets it apart. Its domestic setting makes it about families, relationships, work, and sex rather than say, robot armies and explosions. Would you say that sense of intimacy has been missing from other AI dramas up until now?

Maybe, but we can’t take much credit for the viewpoint! The grounded, domestic setting is the great conceptual coup of Äkta Människor, the Swedish series on which Humans is based. The time and space afforded in a series means you can have a true ensemble and explore so many different sides of the idea – all the low-key, subtle unexpected emotional stuff as well the big mysteries and thrills.

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The relationship between the creator and created can be found in all kinds of stories, from Blade Runner to Frankenstein right back to ancient myth. What is it about these kinds of stories, do you think, that makes us want to retell them in new ways?

This is a dissertation question! But creation is literally the first story. If we could make another human (and not in the obvious sense), we would have equalled the highest achievement of any supernatural creator. So all these stories are, to some degree, explorations of our own relationship with a possible creator, and all that entails – why we were made, what our purpose is, etc.

The way science, technology and industry have raced forward the past few centuries, these stories have become more urgent (from Frankenstein onward, if not before) as that goal comes within touching distance, be it medical advances, cloning or AI. We’ll only lose interest in creator/created stories when we’ve made up our minds about our own.

You have an array of moral and philosophical ideas at play, how did you approach the process of embedding them in a human drama?

They have to spring organically from the drama and emotions. No cheating, no shoehorning. There were philosophical lines we had to drop, because no character had a truthful reason to speak them. Our ordinary family aren’t going to start riffing on Descartes. George and the synths can be a little freer because of who they are, but you still have to make it emotionally relevant.

The Synths seem to display varying levels of sophistication, which we might interpret as different personalities. How do you write the mental life of a synthetic person?

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Depends on which Synth they are! This one’s too tricky to answer in detail without being spoilery… we’ll just say, some don’t have mental lives, and some do. Maybe. Or not. Sorry.

Unlike Spooks, Humans is not episodic storytelling but one long story. That means its episodes don’t have an established cold open/intrigue/climax/resolution format. How did you find the rhythm of where to leave and pick up the story each week?

We try to be organic and let the story dictate, ending on a dramatic moment (in whichever strand it happened to fall) and beginning on an intriguing, unexpected one – with a character you maybe didn’t expect to see. But scene order is also refined in the edit, where the real pace and rhythm are found.

Was it always your plan to make the Synths the only technological advancement from our time in Humans? The cars, phones, laptops and so on haven’t changed. Was it a matter of not pulling focus, budget, or…?

It was the same in Äkta Människor, and we all thought it worked brilliantly to root the idea in the real world. If the Hawkins were hoverbooting through the front door, it wouldn’t be so much about the Synths anymore. Focus, as you say. That’s why we say it’s more a “parallel present” than a near future.

As a UK/US co-production, what kind of notes did AMC provide? Were any original elements nixed for being too colloquially British?

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Boring answer, but very good and smart notes, as you may expect from the shows they’ve made. They never tried to turn it into a mid-Atlantic hodge-podge with everyone speaking like Lennox Lewis, they understood it was a British-set show and fully supported that. The one thing we changed (and we weren’t even asked to) was “milk float”. People just kept asking what it meant, so we changed it. Probably almost an anachronism here anyway… which is sad.

You researched AI thoroughly when planning the series. What was the most useful reading matter in that research? Recommend away!

The single most useful book was Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence. Can’t pretend to have understood all of it, but the chapter where Bostrom speculates what an artificial superintelligence might want was fascinating and inspired lots of ideas.

Now that Humans has debuted in the US, have you noticed a difference between the response on either side of the Atlantic? Have you had any memorable responses on social media when the show is airing?

No huge differences in the US and UK reactions… “creepy” is one word that crops up everywhere after Ep 1, which we’re quite comfortable with. One thing that took us aback somewhat was so many people coming down squarely in favour of the Synths versus the humans from the first moment. Being the same species as the audience is no guarantee of winning their sympathy.

There have been some unrepeatably funny tweets regarding the, uh, intimate moments between humans and Synths.

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You’ve said that you have ideas for a potential second season. What is the scope of Humans’ world? How many seasons could you envisage telling its stories for?

Six seasons and a movie! No news on a second season at the moment. We can’t put a number on it but it feels like there’s huge scope to grow the story world and move things on. The show takes place at the intersection of humanity and technology – it’s such a rich and relevant place that the stories aren’t going to dry up anytime soon. We can certainly see multiple series.

With special thanks to Ryan Lambie and Michael Noble.

Humans airs on Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4 in the UK.

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