Writers of Humans on evolving attitudes to our friends electric

The science fiction drama Humans, which ran on Channel 4 for two seasons from 2015–16, introduced us to a world that was largely very familiar, except for one crucial difference: everybody had robot servants.

Based on a Swedish drama, titled Real Humans, the UK version of the show explored many of the philosophical questions thrown up by artificial intelligence and, most importantly, what it actually means to be human.

Below: Trailor for Real Humans 

Its writers, Jon Brackley and Sam Vincent, drew much inspiration from the Swedish original, though they diverged in significant ways from the off. “In terms of the technology, we made a stylistic choice to characterise and stylise the synths in a much subtler way than they did their ‘hubots’, as they’re called in the Swedish version,” says Vincent. “In the Swedish version they’re more obviously robotic, they have wig-type hair, much more plasticky skin and they also make robotic noises, like clicks and whirrs, when they move. One of the key decisions we made early on was to go much subtler than that, to lose the robotic noises and to make them as close to us as we could possibly get while still knowing there was something deeply eerie about them.”

The point behind this choice was to bring the deeper and more complex questions that swirl around artificial intelligence to the fore. “The show was all about exploring what it means to be human, and we thought that you put more interesting pressure on that question the closer you bring machines to us,” says Brackley. “The less anthromorphised they are, the more obvious the questions are, and the closer they are to us, the more troubling the questions are. When you want to have the human characters and the synth characters experiencing a lot of confusion in their relationships, you really want them to be as close to us as possible.”

In Channel 4’s Humans, anthropomorphic robots called ‘synths’ work and live alongside their human owners. NIska (above, played by Emily Berrington) was assigned as a robot sex worker. Image courtesy Channel4

In addition, there were some practical, real-life elements at play too. “The synths couldn’t pass for human, and they don’t pass for human, but they’re not as oddly unsettling and disturbing as they could be, because that simply wouldn’t sell,” continues Brackley. “They would have evolved commercially to the point where they were quite desirable to have.”

Instead of taking the us vs. them stance that we often see in stories around robots, Humans focused on relationships and emotion. “We thought it was genuinely a new way to explore this subject,” says Vincent. “It wasn’t a high-octane sci-fi thriller, it wasn’t set in the future, it wasn’t apocalyptic, it wasn’t necessarily dystopian. It really was a way to explore things about us, and how we feel and how technology changes us.”

“This was going to be a very human story,” continues Brackley. “The human characters were going to be very relatable, very immediate, very recognisable and we were going to jam them up against this mind-bending technology and make something really interesting out of that. It was always going to be a family drama, as well as being a science fiction piece.”

As part of their research, Vincent and Brackley examined the realities of AI and automation as they currently stand, and also what the future might hold, and met with AI researchers including Demis Hassabis of DeepMind. So will robots soon be living alongside us?

The Humans synths were supposedly developed by scientist David Elster. Max (Ivanno Jeremiah, left) was created as a brother for Elster’s son Leo (Colin Morgan, right), who is himself part-synth. Image courtesy Channel4

“In terms of the technological machinery side of it, we’re a long way from actual humanoids, androids as it were,” says Brackley. “But I think we’re getting closer and closer in terms of the artificial intelligence side.”

“When were developing the very first series, the conversation about artificial intelligence was really rising,” says Vincent. “We’d open the weekend papers and there’d be another article about the recent advances in AI. These articles were almost invariably titled, ‘rise of the robots’. We started to think, ‘oh, hang on a minute, I think we’ve been very fortuitous in our timing here’.

In terms of the technological machinery side of it, we’re a long way from actual humanoids, androids as it were. But I think we’re getting closer and closer in terms of the artificial intelligence side

“But really that conversation hasn’t gone away, it’s still very much at the forefront of debate and discussion,” he continues. “Really now Humans can act as a response and a fictional exploration of the ideas that are really coming. Although the synths are very advanced, and you can’t go into a shop and buy something as advanced as that, really all of the components of the standard, unconscious synth in the show, all of these things are going to happen, all of these are happening. You just look at the Amazon Alexa, we hadn’t heard about that when we started developing Humans. Now it is commonplace. And the role it plays is like a very, very basic version of the synths we see in the show.”

Gemma Chan (Anita/Mia) on set for series two. Image courtesy Channel4

But before we all start imagining a future where we might start forming proper bonds with our synths, Vincent points out that the notion of robots developing a conscious life is still in the world of fiction. “The other side of our story is the more heightened scientific side where the synths become conscious and can think and feel like we do, that’s the speculative side … it’s the part of the story that’s more far-fetched.”

As to whether AI and automation are going to be good or bad for society, Brackley and Vincent, through their research and conversations with experts, ultimately come down on the positive side. “Our aim for the show was to present all sides of the argument as much as possible,” says Vincent. “With an ensemble cast and many different stories, we can really show the negative and positive sides and explore it from every angle.

“In our personal view, through the research we’ve done and the people we’ve spoken to, we are a lot more optimistic than a lot of the points of view you find in the media, which can be quite alarmist. I think the long history of science fiction probably has something to do with that, and maybe the darker sides of our story play into that as well. But we also feel that we are a technologically driven species now, we are going to keep pursuing this. So it isn’t so much a question of should we do it, [but] how we b do it, and make sure we do it responsibly.”

And unlike many viewpoints on AI and automation, which of late have focused on job losses and potential catastrophe for society as we know it, Vincent is more positive. “Absolutely this is going to profoundly change the way we live and work,” he says. “But we are cautiously optimistic about that because looking back on the last century of technological advances we seem to have adapted around them largely.

We are cautiously optimistic [about AI and automation] because looking back on the last century of technological advances we seem to have adapted around them largely

“So we don’t see any reason that we won’t do so [going forward], and there’s probably every chance that AI will help us just as much as it will hinder us. Certainly that was the view of the scientists we’d speak to, who always say, ‘let’s not forget, AI is a tool, it is a highly advanced tool that we are designing to help us’. And whilst there are risks and dangers – and they are very aware of that and they seem to be quite responsible about that – we remain firmly optimistic.”

On-set for series two. After going on a violent rampage, Niska is captured by a government agency. Sympathetic lawyer Laura Hawkins (Katherine Parkinson) attempts to prove that she is ‘conscious’ in order for her to stand trial as a human being. Image courtesy Channel 4

Vincent also points to one slightly surprising response to Humans too, which he feels indicates that maybe we are more robot-ready than is commonly acknowledged. “One of the things that took us by surprise was the audience reaction to the synths in season one,” he explains. “In the development of it, we had some people on our team here that were worried that while the human characters would be very sympathetic to the audience immediately, the synth characters might not be as immediately relatable.

“Jon and I suspected that would be okay because when you look at TV and film, people don’t really have any problem relating to non-human characters as long as they’re really well-drawn,” he continues. “Nevertheless it was still something to keep an eye on. And then actually when the show came out, from the very first episode onwards, the audience reaction was hugely pro-synth. And in many cases, anti-human. So if that’s anything to go by, I think people are ready for the AI revolution. People seem all too ready to embrace our robot overlords.”

Jon Brackley and Sam Vincent will be speaking at the Supercharged conference on AI-powered marketing on July 4

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