The future isn’t what it used to be. Back in the 80s, the year 2015 was very much ‘the future’. Just look at Back to the Future Part II. When Marty McFly went forward in time, he travelled to 2015. They had hoverboards, they had huge 3D sharks, they had self-lacing trainers. The 80s promised us jetpacks, but the 21st century is yet to deliver.
Instead, the future we’re living in feels less exciting and a fair bit bleaker. Instead of hoverboards, we’ve got eco-friendly cars (which might not even be that eco-friendly). TVs don’t transmit directly into our brains, but Siri (or whichever disembodied voice lives in your phone) will remind you to remove your coffee from the roof of the car before driving off. (Genuinely, that’s a thing it does, which, while kind of cool, is also terrifying.) Technology is all about devolving responsibility and tasks to automated machines, and we’ve now reached the stage where we need our phones to remind us to take the boiling liquid off our petrol-fuelled machines. Welcome to 2015, where technology stops you being an idiot.
And this is where Humans, Channel 4’s biggest drama in forever, steps in. Set in the near future, Humans is a picture of suburban London with one difference: the rise of the ‘synths’: human-like androids designed to help around the house and in everyday life. The show explores not only the roles taken on by the synths, but also humanity’s response to them.
HUMANITY’S CREATIVE STREAK IS LIKE NOTHING ELSE IN THE UNIVERSE
The Hawkins family provides a neat case study. The husband is grateful for the help provided by Mia, the family’s synth, but his wife is suspicious of the new arrival. Their eldest daughter tries to hack into her head and the youngest is grateful for a surrogate mummy, while their teenage son is attracted to her. Elsewhere in the show synths are adored, bullied or used as sex dolls, while older synths are either thrown on the scrapheap or kept hidden as the remains of a bygone era. Yes, synthetic nostalgia exists.
The other central plot strand focuses on a group of synths who have been tampered with so they have some kind of consciousness; a streak of humanity, if you will. This adds a glorious weirdness to the series: the creepiness of the synths comes from their likeness, their proximity to humanity. Some are mistaken for humans (at this stage, no humans have been mistaken for synths), which gives the show a quiet, creeping sense of discomfort and the unnerving feeling that there’s something going on behind those dead eyes. You’re just not sure what.
At this level, the show explores a question asked in art quite regularly: what does it mean to be human? The other recent reference point for this is Alex Garland’s film Ex Machina, an incredible look at the interaction between humanity and artificial intelligence. It might be the best film of 2015 so far.
What happens if robots gain the ability to feel emotion? What if they develop personalities? Where should we draw the line between humanity and technology?
One of the plotlines that creeps into Humans concerns the ‘rights’ of the synths. What rights, if any, should they have? As the lines between human and synth identity are blurred, their rights become equally messy.
All this, of course, along with Ex Machina, is intended to cause us to reflect on our own humanity rather than synthetic identity. What is it that makes humanity unique?
CAN A ROBOT BE AN ARTIST?
The question seems irresolvable from a purely secular worldview. But Christians can reach for an answer spelled out from the very beginning of scripture. As humans, we were created differently, formed in the image of God, embedded with a soul; distinct from the rest of creation. Channel 4’s strapline for Humans, ‘Made in our image’, has immense theological overtones. It is only as humans made in the image of God that our uniqueness shines. Humanity’s creative streak – reflective of God’s – is like nothing else in the universe.
Our ability to inspire through art, challenge through poetry or provoke laughter through words is uniquely human. It doesn’t take much of a creative leap to imagine robots who can draw with more accuracy than even the most talented artist. Yet, someone still programmed them; someone still told them what to draw. A machine’s drawing of sunflowers will never have the power or the soul of Van Gogh’s.
Another key difference is that of our morality, our conscience. Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov famously devised the ‘Three Laws of Robotics’. They are: ‘A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.’
While humans are often governed by a set of guiding rules (be they religious or legal), we have the ability to feel conflicted, to act outside of them, to wrestle with them, to move beyond them in what it means to embrace our humanity. From humanity’s origins and in the story of our subsequent fall, this knowledge of right and wrong has been central in what it means to be human. Perhaps it is in our God-given creative and conscientious souls that the dividing lines exist.
The other central concern of the show is the creeping influence of the synths. Mrs Hawkins’ suspicion and fear of Mia comes from the worry that she’s being replaced; that her role as mother is being fulfilled by an automated machine. Her daughter Mattie finds herself less interested in the education system and more disenfranchised with society: ‘What’s the point when a synth will take any job you’d go for?’ In another family, a man feels his role as carer and protector for his wife has become systemised.
Perhaps that’s the scariest thing about Humans. That future is…here.
WILL OUR CHILDREN BE TAUGHT TO READ AND WRITE BY ROBOTS?
We may not have androids following us around, demanding we take our medication and sorting out our children’s breakfasts, but technology is certainly picking up much of our 21st-century slack, and replacing the jobs that people have done for ages.
Let’s take one example: self-service checkouts. Despite the frequency with which they incorrectly claim there is an ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’, self-service checkouts are a logical step towards human roles being replaced by robots.
Retailers deny that they have cost jobs, but anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. In many shops, automatic machines are now the only option late at night. As one supermarket worker reported: ‘When the machines were first put in, staff were told that they wouldn’t cost jobs, but several years later, I’m convinced that they have. In fact, they have cut the staff down to an absolute minimum.’
Think about the checkout operator, perhaps one that’s been in their job for decades, diligently scanning items, asking you if you want help with your packing and offering you cashback. Suddenly, their job, their livelihood, their economic identity has been replaced by a machine; a machine that can’t even tell when you’ve swiped the barcode on your quinoa.
ROBOTS ON THE PAYROLL
In many ways, this is just the next step in the mechanisation of our economy that has been ongoing for centuries, predominantly in the name of progress. But as more and more processes have become automated, dare we ask what might be next? Could the process of seeing a GP become automated? Will our children be taught to read and write by robots? How many jobs will become as outdated as the checkout operator?
In a recent interview, Professor Kevin Warwick of Coventry University, a robotics expert, said: ‘We don’t particularly need to do physical jobs, so let machines do them. Why do we have a problem with that? Let’s have our leisure time and enjoy it. We need to not see having a job as critical to our system as society.’
Perhaps. But maybe we shouldn’t rush headlong into a blissful future in which every burdensome task is performed by robotic helpers and human retirement starts at birth. In Genesis, the first human was given a job: tending a garden. Learning, creating and achieving through work has always been integral to our humanity. That’s not to say that we only find meaning and purpose in our employment, but it’s often in the nittygritty of our everyday lives that we build God’s kingdom in the here and now, and that we can point towards something bigger.
HUMANISING PEOPLE AGAIN
That depressing Monday morning feeling as you trudge to work will probably never go away, but let’s not forget the moments in the rest of the week when we achieve something beautiful. To teach, to create, to serve, to heal, to deliver, to chat, to comfort, to play, to organise, to analyse, to speak, to share, to film, to paint, to sing, to dance, to shave, to manufacture…there’s a beauty in the humanity of work that’s worth fighting for, worth protecting.
We were created to do something; not just as cogs in a wider economic machine, but as humans put on this planet to do something unique as individuals. For all its creepiness, the most terrifying thing about Humans (and the future in general) isn’t that we’ve humanised robots, it’s that we’re dehumanising people. As a Church we’ve got to protect what it is that makes us distinct as humans; to cry from the rooftops that as humans you are loved, you are unique and you cannot be replaced by an iPhone.
But I still want a jetpack.
WHEN ROBOTS ATTACK
Not all fictional robots are as subservient as those in Humans. Sci-fi folklore is filled with robots going rogue, for both good and bad reasons. Here are some of the best:
2001: A SPACE ODDESSY
Everything was going swimmingly for the crew of Discovery One until the ship’s computer HAL 9000 locked Dave, one of the astronauts, outside the ship after hearing Dave’s plan to deactivate him. This led to one of the most famous conversations in film history: ‘Open the pod bay doors, HAL.’ ‘I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.’
AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
In Marvel’s latest big-superhero-team-up-film, the heroes took on the artificial intelligence of Ultron, who was designed by Iron Man and The Hulk to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, the most intelligent force on the planet decided it would be a better place if humans were eliminated from the equation.
STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE
You might not think of R2-D2 as a rebel (except in the very obvious Rebel Alliance sense), but the plucky droid’s refusal to accept the status quo played a vital role is the defeat of the Empire. Meanwhile C3-PO just stood about whittering, as usual.
WALLACE AND GROMIT
The Aardman duo had numerous run-ins with maniacal machines in the course of their adventures: the aggressive cooker in A Grand Day Out, the titular mechanical legwear in The Wrong Trousers and that giant sheep machine in A Close Shave – truly terrifying.