The Age of Synthetic Humans

June 15, 2015 at 8:54 pm (interesting) (, , , , , , , , )

I don’t watch much scheduled TV these days (although made an exception for the new clangers today, but that’s another story), but I was very interested in the new Channel 4 drama ‘Humans’ that started yesterday.  I first saw references to it popping up via Twitter, following the creation of @PersonaSynths on Twitter advertising their new generation “synthetic humans”.  The marketing was very good – they even had an ebay shop and a ‘store front’ on Regents Street London – and apparently it had a number of people fooled for a while, thinking it was real and that you really could buy one!

So having quite liked the trailer, I tuned in (apparently with 4 million others) to watch it last night, and I have to say it was really good.  I lost count of the number of social and ethical issues around the future of technology that the show raised in just that first episode.

Here are some rambling descriptions of some of the issues I spotted that were interesting to explore in the programme.  Warning – spoilers ahead!

In the very opening scenes, one of the “synths” (the robots) standing in a room full of synths slowly turns to look up at the moon.  The Implication being that there is something more emotionally special about that one – that maybe a robot can appreciate the view of something beautiful, such as a clear, bright, full moon.  We see her later staring at the moon from a garden too.  As the plot unfolds, we are slowly discovering there are synths designed for emotions, but don’t quite know the ramifications of them yet, other than the fact that they appear to be in hiding among the “regular” synths.

When the family is struggling to cope with the mother being away working at the weekend, they (well, the husband and father), decide to buy a Synth, and immediately you are struck with the uncertainty of it being the right thing to do, by the looks on their faces … but the salesman wins out, with special finance deals and so on, just as it someone is buying a car.  It is that easy.

On the way to the showroom, there are a number of times that you see a synth in the street doing things that people do today – handing out leaflets, giving directions and help people navigate public transport.  What are the people who used to do those things doing now – do they have a life of luxury?  Are they working elsewhere?  We also see a number of synths working in a plantation picking food, doing repetitive, mechanical tasks, where they can work overtime and not need paying.

As things develop, we feel the sense of guilt that builds up with the mother, as Anita (their new household synth) steps in more and more with the youngest – reading stories (“but I like Anita reading to me – she doesn’t rush the stories”), or just how quickly the child adapts to having the synth around … (reminds me of the Paro therapeutic robot).

If that wasn’t enough, we have the old man attached to his young boy synth, so much so that he keeps hiding him and maintaining him himself, long after his health carers have tried to force him to upgrade.  We don’t know why yet – is there a hint of being a son or grandson that never was?  Is it companionship since his wife is gone?  Is it something more sinister – perhaps an accomplice?  I guess we will find out in time.  Either way it is obvious that we are seeing emotional attachment built up here that was not anticipated when he was “issued” with his carer synth originally.  We also get a sense of the trust he has in his synth, as we find out that it “knows too much” – something that could perhaps also be said of our technology today!

An interesting side plot point – the NHS has invested in 500,000 synths to support care work in general – although I think they need to upgrade the bedside manner of Vera if they are to catch on … but maybe that is a result of those heavily subsidised, bulk government, special offer personas from the company!  Is this the “NHS synth” designed to a budget perhaps?

And then of course we have the teenage daughter’s relationship with the synth – it is a slave, to be controlled, to be abused, to be shot with an air rifle should she wish it.  Why this hatred?  We get a clue later – she sees no worth in continuing her education, the jobs are being performed by synths – why do people need education?  Why to people need to work anymore at all?  What is the point of sitting her exams at school?  The resentment follows, alongside laziness – why bother even getting up to fetch something, when the synth can be told to do it for you?

We get glimpses of other dynamics too – the woman recovering from an accident (or is she disabled?) who has a hunky male synth giving her physiotherapy, and then carrying her to her bath, as her husband walks in.  Will she grow closer to her synthetic carer we wonder, as her real-life partner fails to live up to the ideals of the synth?

We still don’t know the meaning of the pocketed ‘adult add-on pack’ that the male of the family found with their newly acquired synth.  Once again there are implied ethics here – how far does the “command” extend.  We see one working in the sex industry for example, but then find out it is actually one of the emotional ones in hiding “Did you turn off your pain sensors as I told you to?”  “No, I was designed to feel pain” …

There are so many fascinating questions raised by this piece, that even if it has peaked out exploring social dynamics of technology and people, even if the plot doesn’t follow through on the promise so far, it has been very interesting to watch.  I don’t think it will go down hill – the acting of the synths is superb.  Just enough ‘uncanny valley’ behaviour to allow you to suspend belief and imagine the technology could exist today.  The questions keep piling up and the plot is developing.  It is a nice ‘just around the corner’ extrapolation, almost a parallel world where all other technology is the same (I wonder how they are powered).

And all the way through, @PersonaSynths maintains the “hey look, we’ve lent our products to a TV crew and they are using them in this great new drama” pretence which is continuing the innovative marketing style of the show.  I particularly liked some of the tweets that went out whilst the show was airing:

I’ll leave the last word to them then:

In short, I look forward to the next episode.  Fingers crossed it lives up to its initial promise.

(Aside, I now want to read up on the Swedish drama it is apparently based on.  Actually, maybe I won’t as it has already been extensively documented – maybe I’ll just wait for the UK one to unfold).


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