In a 2007 article on Greater Good Science Center's website, Kwan Min Lee of the University of Southern California, an expert in communication between human beings and machines, reports that researchers around the world are working on the development of empathic robots to serve as domestic servants, nurses, teachers, and caregivers for the elderly. "Rather than viewing robots as mere tools or senseless machines, researchers are beginning to see robots as social actors that can autonomously interact with humans in a socially meaningful way."
This development is creatively at the heart and soul of Humans, an eight-part British television series adapted from a Swedish work that aired in the summer of 2015 on AMC in the U.S. Reflecting its global roots, here is a drama that is not afraid to ask all the right questions about the interaction between robots and human beings. Unlike many other sci-fi excursions, Humans centers around one family's experiences with a "synth" or android who brings new challenges into their lives.
The Hawkins family lives in suburban London. Upset about all the time his wife Laura (Katherine Parkinson) spends at her job as a lawyer, Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) purchases a robot to assist in household chores and to look after their youngest daughter, Sophie (Pixie Davies). They name her Anita (Gemma Chan). Sophie immediately bonds with this "synth" because, unlike her mother, this reader of bedtime stories "doesn't rush."
Anita also wins the adoration of teenage Theo (Toby Hawkins) who lusts after her perfect body. Eldest daughter Mattie (Lucy Carless), a computer wizard, is fascinated with synth technology and detects that something is quite unusual about Anita; could it be that she actually feels things? When Laura and Joe disagree about the need for and value of the robot's presence in their house, the already existing tensions in their marriage surface.
Also interesting is the relationship between Dr. George Millican (William Hurt), a scientist involved in the creation of the synths many years ago. His favorite home companion is Odi (Will Tudor), who, while old and malfunctioning now, continues to provide George with memories of his beloved wife. Millican, an elder who prizes his independence, is not happy when the government forces him to have a new caregiver, Vera (Rebecca Front). This tyrannical synth compels us to think twice about the rosy pictures being painted by health care professionals who like to characterize elder care robots as the miracle workers of the future.
Meanwhile, Hobb (Danny Webb), a government investigator, and two police officers, Pete (Neil Maskell) and Karen (Ruth Bradley), are trying to locate a small group of rogue robots led by Leo (Colin Morgan). The synths have lived as a family together and have unusual powers of the mind. Among their number is Max (Ivanno Jeremiah), a congenial black man; Fred (Sope Dirisu), who is captured and studied by the authorities; and Niska (Emily Berrington), a synth who has escaped being a prostitute and has chosen to take out her rage on human beings who have no respect for synths. Luckily, her brief encounter with George pares off some of her rough edges.
Applause for Humans for its humanizing of robots! While illustrating key issues in human-robot interactions, it helps us shed the knee-jerk fear of robots as machines that will take over the planet and make slaves of all humans. This deft sci-fi series catches the tender and humble moments of the Hawkins family and the solidarity of the rogue synth community. The finest moment in the drama brings both groups together as they try to revive Leo's closest friend as he faces death. Here compassion and empathy are the healing balms that offer a cure for the alienation and misunderstandings between human beings and robots.
Humans, a ratings success in the U.S. and England, was recently renewed for a second season. We will look forward to that!