Looking Back At HUMANS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At HUMANS

Tony is no longer sure about his Humanity.
There are some things a show or a movie about realistic humanoid androids is duty bound to cover – the lines between commodity and personality, the lines of sentience and humanity, the lines between slavery and self-governance, and the lines between subroutines and imagination.

Those are old tropes of the android fantasy, but both the issues themselves and the way in which they’re addressed has evolved a long way since robots, androids, and artificial intelligence became concepts with which we all had to conjure, both in science fiction and in our daily lives.

Humans, created by Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley and heavily based on the Swedish original, Real Humans, tackled these issues in a contemporary 21st century way that showed both how ready we are as a culture to accept a breed of techno-slave into our modern lives, and how uncomfortable we would be with the idea of those slaves being independent, sentient beings.

To do that, it set its drama in an adjusted version of our modern world – our modern world, but with Synths in. Synths that did everything that the more class-conscious element of humanity ever-so-slightly looks down on, from mining to childcare, nursing to sex work, allowing human beings to be miserable about whole other ranges of things, instead.

It covered all sorts of moral and ethical questions, from the standard ‘quest for sentience’ by use of a kind of code upload, to the boundary lines of both Synth independence and – notably at the end of its final series – the boundary lines of human comfort with creations that are constantly evolving towards surpassing their creators.
When Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill) brings home a Synth named Anita to ‘fill the void’ in his family that he perceives developing as his wife Laura (Katherine Parkinson) is out working, it begins a chain of events that will ultimately lead to a quest for Synth sentience, and from there to a demand to be recognised as individual entities deserving of free will. But it’s by no means a linear quest.

Along the way, we learn that domestic Synths like Anita (Gemma Chan) come with codes to unlock sexual subroutines – though they contain no equivalent consent-refusal protocols. We learn that David Elster, the man who first perfected Synths has a son named Leo (Colin Morgan) who has distinct sympathies for the Synths, especially those with the potential for rebellion and sentience – and that he is ‘part-Synth’ himself, a development that signals an evolutionary pathway which will decide the future of both Synths and humans.

We meet Niska, a Synth originally built to be a ‘sister’ for Leo, who now works in a Synth brothel (because this is humanity we’re dealing with, so of course there are Synth brothels) – and she is in touch with her Synth rage, making her a potentially deadly independent element.

We meet conscious Synths who are working undetected alongside humans, Synths cruelly abused in illegal fighting dens. Anything you can imagine using a lifelike human robot for, we find Synths that have been put to use that way.

And that’s ultimately the arc of the series. While the Synths for the most part are striving upward, becoming at first more ‘human,’ and then essentially seeing the sense of less emotionally irrational and personalized pathways, becoming something beyond most humans – becoming peaceful in the face of violence, and bigotry, and hatred. It’s an example learned from a very few special humans, granted, but the fact that relatively peaceful protest becomes the pathway that makes most sense to the Synths once more and more of them achieve sentience is a clear science-fiction message.
Meanwhile, the idea of sentient Synths breeds fear, and resentment, and anger in many humans – by no means all, and there is certainly a genuine battle for the heart of humankind along the course of three series, with several people changing their minds as they go, but many. In essence, Humans becomes a science-fiction rendering of the struggle for civil rights faced by ever non-majority group.

There are dark parallels with human beings’ relationship to each other, and to other creatures too. Fights for equality provoke genuine anger in the powerful, because they know how they’ve behaved towards the minority, and they know that if that minority has equality, they’ll have to look them in the eye and see their darkness reflected there.

You could even argue it’s a reason why communication with other animals is no kind of priority for human beings. We know other apes have an intelligence. We know pigs, and birds, and dolphins, and octopuses do too. But we also know about bacon, and calamari, and chicken biryani, and we don’t want to know how far that intelligence might stretch, because then we’d have to deal with ourselves.

The difference in Humans is that Synths are denied a mystery, and denied a uniqueness by lots of people – Synths were made, constructed by humans, so many humans refuse to acknowledge any notions of their equality.

But the fear of sentient Synths speaks to a fundamental element in all regressive denial of the rights of others – that by giving them equality, it takes away from the power of those in charge. It’s a rhetoric that is chillingly familiar. If Synths had equality, what next? Would they want the vote? Would they stand as MPs? Would there be a Synth Prime Minister? Could you in all conscience vote for someone so ‘Other’?

For Synth, read Woman and you can take the argument back to the time of the Suffragettes. For Synth, read Black. Read Gay. Read Trans. Read Neurodiverse. The fear of ‘the Other’ gaining equality has been clear throughout time, and Humans shows it in one of the most startling and powerful show finales in 21st century science-fiction.
We won’t spoil it for you – you really should go watch it for yourself, and Humans is one of the most bingeworthy shows in recent science-fiction history too – but there are speeches that will chill you and stay with you, there is a visual distinction between the peaceful sentient Synths and the fearful, raging, bigoted humans, and there is above all, proof of a forward path that will be embraced by some, and that will strike ever more fear in the hearts of others.

The point is, at least in Humans, there are different drivers at work between the humans and the Synths. Human evolution is slow, and has kept us in a virtual plateau for some time, having achieved something beyond alpha predator status in our own environment controlled by our own needs. If anything, we have been subject to micro-evolution in the demands for acceptance, equality and power to which we’ve referred. Each equality achieved has changed the nature of the environment for the next generation of people who would previously have been excluded. That’s a societal evolution, but it doesn’t, for instance, grow us an extra thumb.

Synths have no comfort zone. No stopping point. They use a machine learning algorithm that only gets faster and more complex the more time passes. In any contest, they will be certain to out-evolve us – and there’s evidence that to some extent that is happening at the end of series 3. The choice for humanity is ultimately to destroy all Synths, or to find an accommodation with them that allows both species to go forward together. That’s a battle for hearts, minds and central processors that is left ambivalent at the end of the show – it could easily go either way, and it demands you confront it in your mind once the show ends.

Humans was brilliant, breathtaking and bingeworthy TV from start to finish, with a staggering cast, including Tom goodman-Hill, Katherine Parkinson, Colin Morgan, William Hurt, Gemma Chan, Danny Webb, Carrie-Ann Moss, Rebecca Front, Will Tudor and more. And unlike previous versions of the ‘android search for sentience’ story, it hit home hard because it’s closer now than it’s ever been before. The internet of things, the ubiquity of personal digital assistants, the staggering speed of machine learning algorithms even today, and the development of ever more Synth-like androids means that while Humans is science-fiction today, it may well not be in three or four generations. If that.

And that, ultimately, is the point of Humans. It’s not just about the emergence of a synthetic life form. It’s about how we as biological life forms treat those different from ourselves, and whether we can come to terms with a reality that’s coming down the time tunnel to meet us faster than we know.

Think we’re wrong?
“Siri, play Humans on Britbox…”
Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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