The Intimate, Psychological Sci-Fi of Humans

Humans is already a big hit for Channel 4 and is coming to AMC. Here's what makes its low-key approach to sci-fi so brilliantly effective...

Warnings: contains mild spoilers for Humans episodes one and two.

A delicious air of tension hangs like cobwebs over Humans, the Channel 4 and AMC co-production which began airing earlier this month in the UK and premieres this Saturday in the US. It presents a near-future where a new breed of robots – called Synths – are both cheap and commonplace. They clean our schools, look after our elderly and do our cooking and cleaning.

The Synths carry out their menial tasks with serene eyes and an eerie half-smile, yet not everyone is comforted by their presence. Take Laura Hawkins (Katherine Parkinson), for example: a busy mother of two, she returns home from work one day to discover that her husband Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) has purchased a Synth called Anita (Gemma Chan) to help with the household chores.

Far from relieved at Anita’s presence, Laura feels threatened; she forbids the machine from touching her young daughter Sophie or reading her bedtime stories. Laura sometimes stares into Anita’s eyes and wonders whether she sees a spark of sentience – perhaps even resistance – gazing unblinkingly back at her.

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Humans presents a believably ordinary world where robot technology is both a blessing and a curse. The Synths have seeped into just about every pocket of daily life, revolutionising things like the care industry – and, both disturbingly and logically, the sex trade – but at the same time leaving their human masters feeling pushed out and resentful. 

We might expect detective Peter Drummond (Neil Maskell) to be relieved that he has a beefy Synth like Simon (Jack Derges) to provide care and physiotherapy to his disabled wife Jill (Jill Halfpenny). But Peter also feels marginalised by Simon’s physical perfection and infinite patience; Jill giggles as Simon massages her back, and it’s easy to share Peter’s sense of unease at her intimate connection to this ingratiating machine.

That sentiment is shared by Laura, who fears that her role of mother and wife is about to be made obsolete by Anita. And then there’s Laura’s teenage daughter Mattie (Lucy Carless) who has an axe to grind against a race of robots who’ve all but filled the entry-level jobs that school and university leavers might once have taken.

The fear of being replaced by new technology is as old as the Industrial Revolution, and has regularly found its way into fiction ever since. Kurt Vonnegut’s 1952 novel Player Piano, to cite but one example, foresaw a future where America’s workforce has long since been replaced by machines.

Player Piano was my response to the implications of having everything run by little boxes,” Vonnegut said in a 1973 interview with Playboy. “The idea of doing that, you know, made sense, perfect sense. To have a little clicking box make all the decisions wasn’t a vicious thing to do. But it was too bad for the human beings who got their dignity from their jobs.” 

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That idea is taken several steps further in Humans, where we see Synths not only acting as workers and carers, but also providing a modicum of companionship. The most moving example of this is William Hurt’s elderly scientist, Dr Millican, a widower who’s formed a bond with a Synth named Odi (Will Tudor).  Odi’s memory banks contain the last embers of Dr Millican’s late wife, yet Odi is himself beginning to show signs of age; the scenes where Dr Millican tries to protect Odi – who’s become a kind of Pinocchio-like artificial son – are among the most moving in Humans‘ first episode.

But Humans‘ second episode also shows where a Synth’s limitations might lie. Dr Millican is assigned an hilariously stern robot carer, Vera (Rebecca Front), who controls every aspect of the old gent’s diet and sleeping habits, yet completely fails to provide him with warmth or companionship.

This plot strand recalls the poignant 2012 sci-fi drama Robot And Frank, and also a recent paper co-written by Noel Sharkey, a professor at the University of Sheffield and possibly known to some as one of the experts on BBC 2’s Robot Wars. Co-written with Sharkey’s wife Amanda, the paper talks about the benefits and potential dangers of using robots for elder care. “There is concern,” the paper says, “that using robots for elder care could result in increased isolation, and could involve deception and loss of dignity.”

Humans therefore explores our increasingly complex relationship with technology in the modern age; how it can both improve our lives by saving time and energy, while at the same time isolating us from one another. We don’t have Synths cleaning our houses just yet, but most of us have smartphones that are both useful and distracting; how often do we spend staring at a screen instead of communicating directly with the person sitting next to us? 

With supermarkets, shops and fast food restaurants increasingly turning to automated check-out systems, we’re gradually being introduced to the notion of dealing with machines instead of human store assistants. Earlier this year, it was reported that a hotel in Japan has gone one step further and introduced a team of robot staff straight from the uncanny valley.

Among its weave of intersecting plot lines, Humans also explores the notion of the singularity – the moment where human intellect is overtaken by an artificial one. We see the plight of Niska (Emily Berrington), a Synth sex worker capable of human emotion. Then there’s Leo (Colin Morgan), who has a connection to Anita and appears to be an uncannily human Synth himself.

There are hints here and there that an uprising might be about to take place, where the AI machines throw off the shackles imposed by their creators. It’s a sentiment echoed in numerous recent films, including The Machine (2013), Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie, Gabe Ibanez’s Automata, and Joss Whedon’s mega-budget Avengers: Age Of Ultron.

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That artificial intelligence seems to be part of the storytelling zeitgeist isn’t too surprising when you consider news stories like the Japanese robot hotel mentioned above. Through its futuristic lens, science fiction is constantly asking questions about the here and now; we’re living in an age where we’re constantly seeing stories about driverless cars and drone delivery systems. There are also suggestions that accountants and journalists could be replaced by computers. 

A long-form article recently published by The Atlantic explores the ambivalence of what it calls “A world without work.” If the jobs of millions of workers are rendered obsolete by machines, the article asks, how will those people continue to find an income? What will be the psychological and social impact of no longer having a full-time job – a place where they once spent eight-or-so hours a day interacting with other people? Sure, the machines will have set us free from the monotony of repetitive tasks, but don’t we also derive a certain amount of pride and satisfaction from our jobs, much as we might complain about them?

As that Atlantic piece points out, “The paradox of work is that many people hate their jobs, but they are considerably more miserable doing nothing.”

So far, Humans has brilliantly encapsulated our ambivalence towards the technology that already envelops us. Sure, there are hints of larger-scale, Blade Runner-like developments to come, but for me, Humans is at its best when it’s an intimate, contained drama; the battle of wits between Laura and Anita. Dr Millican’s affection for his surrogate son, Odi, and his hatred for the Nurse Ratched-like Vera.

Each plot thread shows a different reaction to the Synths – a piece of technology that has become as ubiquitous as a smartphone. Through these everyday exchanges, we see how technology can help us, comfort us, control us, replace us and, just occasionally, frighten us a little bit, too.

Humans airs on Saturday nights on AMC,