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Sophie’s Choice: Humans – “A clever, sophisticated and compelling thriller” (TV Review)

Has anyone been watching the new Channel 4 drama Humans? I’m obsessed with it! As part of my Sophie’s Choice TV blog, here’s my new Student Rag review on the opening episode of Humans:

Artificial intelligence is a concept that has been intriguing book, TV and film lovers for decades. But as time goes on and the potential immergence of the singularity comes closer, the idea becomes less exciting and more terrifying.

Channel 4’s new drama Humans is like a reinvented, revitalised version of Terminator but this time cold as ice Arnie Schwarzenegger has been replaced with a new breed of robot, the Synths, who, much like the Skynet machines, can be programmed to be either obedient, loyal servants or unpredictable, dangerous androids whose intelligence and abilities surpass human beings.

The sci-fi series – suitable for those who aren’t necessarily sci-fi fans – opens with Joe, a father of three looking to buy a Synth to help him out with the house work while his wife Laura (Katherine Parkinson from The IT Crowd) regularly works away from home as a lawyer. As Synths are the norm in the world of Humans, the green-eyed humanoid robots have seemingly been perfected but something about the dead behind the eyes machines makes our skin crawl and evokes an eerie feeling of uncanny valley, as their unnatural movements, words and mannerisms contradict their humanly appearance. Despite how friendly and devoted they appear to be to their human owners, something about the Synths sets alarm bells ringing as our initial reaction to their robotic demeanour is: “Don’t trust it. Run away!”

As the family struggle with grumpy, rebelling teenage Mattie and a growing sense of tension and unease between Joe and Laura, Joe assumes that purchasing Synth Anita will provide some support for the family. After buying and ‘setting up’ of Anita, which is spookily similar to the setting up of a new iPhone (I bet if Synths are ever invented, they’ll be made by Apple), we see Anita bonding with Joe and his youngest daughter Sophie, who takes to Anita more than anyone else and even begins to favour Anita over her own mother.

Later in the episode, during a flashback from five weeks earlier, we meet Leo who is mysteriously creeping around in woods with a group of Synths, including Anita, and appears to be transporting them in secret. But Leo’s efforts to protect these mysterious Synths go awry as three of the androids, one of which being Anita, are stolen and sped off in the back of a blue van. In present time, Leo is still searching for Anita as she is the only stolen Synth who has yet to make contact with him. But we know from seeing Anita with her new family that she is safe and well, so why is she hiding from Leo?

Throughout the episode, we see glimpses into Anita’s seemingly robotic character and realise that something about her is different from the rest of the unable-to-think, unable-to-feel Synths. Anita subtly but continuously disobeys Laura, who suspected something strange about her from the get go, and develops a keen fondness and protective instinct over Sophie.

My guess is that during the time that elapses between the kidnapping of the three Synths and Anita being placed with her new family, the androids were meddled with, reprogrammed, to enable them to think independently, feel emotion and, most significantly, enabling them to be capable of harming humans.

Humans is a clever, sophisticated and compelling thriller that, as well as making us think, also plants a seed of paranoia in our minds as we wonder about the possibility of Synths becoming a reality in the not-so-distance future. While we already rely on a host of different machines in everyday life – mobile phones, cars, washing machines, microwaves etc. – we don’t think of technology as being a threat at the moment because we think of our practical appliances as being dead, as being merely robotic machines that are incapable of harm because they are not conscious. But if some kind of artificial intelligence was invented that could think and feel freely, would that mean that a machine could develop its own mind, its own psychology?

Can we really control our own inventions when they start to think for themselves? When technology exists purely to serve us, would artificial intelligence eventually rebel and ask “Why should we obey you?”

The next episode of Humans airs on Sunday at 9pm on Channel 4.

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