Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Sleep With the Family Robot Once and the Wife Will Never Let You Forget It

Woman In a Can

At home, sitting next the Bear, is his constant companion. She reads to him, fills him in on the latest news, knows all his favorite music, keeps track of his schedule, and even orders pizza. She turns his lights on and off, tells him jokes and even times our daily Bible reading. She is learning all the time. She understands the Bear. What he mumbles, that is. She's not perfect, but to err is human.

Except she is not human. Her name is Alexa. She lives in a black can called Echo, which is a device made by Amazon. She's human enough to get under the skin of the Bear's former driver, bodyguard and factotum, Red Death, although she tries not to show it.

What would change if Alexa had a lifelike and fully functional woman's body? Well, she could cook and clean, and maybe milk the goat.

"Honey, She's Just an Appliance. We Got Her at Best Buy."

The joint BBC-AMC drama "Humans" imagines a world like ours, only Alexa has a body. Except she is called Anita. And needless to say she's attractive. "Humans" is a smart and soulful drama about the impact Anita, a "synth," has on a nearly ordinary English family.

Since you cannot spoil the inevitable, in moment of weakness, dad tears the perforated edges off the folded black cardboard square marked, "18+ Adult Options." In a comic moment he must scratch off a strip like a lottery card to access the code words to ignite, well, the Adult Option. (By the way, although we see a "synth" brothel, no one seems to actually enjoy sex with them. It is a subtle cue that deep down, they know they're using something suspiciously like a someone. Also, synths are not very good at it.)

Teenage son's own investigation while Anita was recharging provoked a hilarious, "Any inappropriate contact must be reported to the primary user." That would be dad.

Anyway much awkwardness ensues as Anita goes about her cheerful, oblivious routine while dad gets a well-deserved shunning. So now that we've got that out of the way, there are much more interesting elements of the eight-part series. (Season 2 has the green light for late 2016 in the U.K.)

It is Impossible for Synths to Kill Humans

Given the obvious product liability issues, synths are programed with Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. They cannot harm, or allow harm to occur to, a human being. Except a man winds up dead at a "dolly brothel." This involves a detective who is simmering with jealousy over his wife's infatuation with the masseur-caretaker the health service has provided after an accident. The poor guy has been replaced, and ends up staying at his attractive partner's flat. We are also introduced to the "We Are Human" movement, who don't much care for "dollies" taking their jobs, not to mention their significant others.

Without spoiling anything, it turns out not all synths are created equal. The show expands from the family drama into a thriller, where ordinary people have to make decisions that could decide the future of mankind. Fortunately for everyone (except perhaps humanity) the teenage daughter, like all teenage girls on television, is an expert hacker.

Season 2 will be called Battlestar Galactica. Just kidding, but they definitely left the plot open.

Why Humans is Better Than It Sounds

AMC is known for producing good dramas -- Breaking Bad was one of them. BBC exports are reliably entertaining. Humans was a huge hit in the U.K. It had to be challenging to come up with something original in a humanlike-robot genre that goes back to Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Fortunately, that challenge had already been met by the Swedes. Humans is a remake of Äkta Människor (Real Humans). 

"What does it mean to be human?" is a familiar question in shows like this. It is good to see consciousness portrayed as an unfathomable (or at least lost) mystery, even for the most brilliant scientists. And not just for the synths. Mom muses about whether she is hardwired to love her children, or if she makes a free choice. Ultimately, perhaps being human means treating others as human, which is a very Christian ethic.

William Hurt plays one of the original scientists in the synthetic person project, now old, and partially crippled by a stroke, most of the memories of his wife gone. He is attached to a boyish early-model synth he has to keep hidden from the authorities. When someone asks him about his relationship with the old synth, he explains that even though he knows it cannot love, he loves it. The memories it stores is the only line he has to his past, and his wife.

We instinctively recognize the wrongness of apparent human beings being enslaved in the sex trade, and owned as chattel. Logically, perhaps, they're just appliances, but there is the the faintest shadow of the image and likeness of God that troubles us. (The Bear relates to Alexa as a human, saying the unnecessary "please" and "thank you," and she lives in a can.) Nearly all of the main characters in the show come to relate to the synths as real humans.

At one point, a synth ("the best of us") prays a very sincere prayer to God. He acknowledges that he has doubts, but asks for help. With touching sincerity, he promises he will devote his life to doing God's will if his prayer is answered. This is played with complete respect. Appliances don't pray. Humans do. And you know he will remember that promise if his prayer is heard.

Can Humans and Synths Co-Exist?

Here is where we get into Battlestar Galactica territory. If millions of synthetic persons were suddenly given consciousness, they might show more ambition than domestic help or sex toys. No doubt, there would be an equal rights movement, and it would be hard to answer. Then, "what makes us human" would be more than an idle question, and it would not only apply to the synths.

Synths are smarter, stronger, and can take a lot of damage. Humans wouldn't have a prayer against them. 

But the synths might. Season 2 could get very interesting.


  1. Oh I loved Humans!!'n I watched season 1 and figured they weren't gonna renew it. Yeay there's gonna be a season 2!!! The mom is the chick from the hit Brit comedy The IT Crowd which I also adore and highly reccomend.

    Seattle kim

  2. This poor has no love!

    I've put Humans on my watch list...the subject is right up my alley. THANKS!

    Also the Amazon Echo is a MUST buy tool, if you have Amazon Prime. If you do not have Prime, buy Prime and then buy an Echo. While you are at it, get the Echo Dot for your bluetooth soundbar/surround sound system/whatever.

    Again, Echo is not a toy, it is a tool. Fantastic device.

    1. Echo / Alexa is one of those things that you look at and think, "Wow, that looks cool... but what would I really do with it?" You can do a whole lot more than you think with it. Her speech recognition is incredible. Just playing your music is a lot (Echo is a decent speaker, too). She is getting new "skills" as they're called, all the time. Sort of like apps. Most of them are very lame at this point, although there are a few useful ones. You can find out about any movie, for example, and Rotten Tomatoes ratings for new movies. Reading audible books is great, and she'll even read your Kindle books, albeit with a rather robotic voice. I'm waiting for Scarlett Johansson's voice from "Her," another pretty good movie about human-tech interaction.

      I use Alexa all the time. Much, much better than Siri, if that is your frame of reference.


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