Review: 'Humans' - Raising the ethics of Artificial Intelligence

  • Ellen Teague
  • (Updated )

I am wary of technology and concepts like 'Artificial Intelligence', but the latest series of Channel 5's sci-fi drama 'Humans' has made me realise that complex questions surrounding the creation of high-functioning robots cannot be ignored. I believe that people of faith should be engaging with the issues involved.

The final episode of the third series of 'Humans' is on Thursday 5 July. The key theme in this series has been: Can robots - called here 'Synths' (synthetics) - ever gain acceptance from humans? I had just dipped into the first two series, being amazed at the great acting - the human-like 'synths' are all absolutely convincing, with the 'synth' actors spending time in 'synth school' before filming. However, this series I have been completely gripped and have gone back and viewed all three series.

The story starts when the suburban Hawkins family brings the latest tech gadget, a robot servant called Anita - later known as Mia (Gemma Chan) - into the family home, and the repercussions change their lives forever. Things get complicated when their helpful green-eyed humanoid robot starts to think and feel, going well beyond the household chores in her abilities. Robots are evolving beyond the limits humans have defined for them. In that first series the main issue is trust between humans and 'synths'. A standout character in another household is elderly Dr George Millican (William Hurt), an engineer on the original synth project and owner of Odi (Will Tudor), an out-of-date model that the government is looking to recycle. But George can't bear to part with Odi because he's come to feel like family, and, in spite of his faults, he stores George's fading memories.

Series two focuses on questions involved with existence and the right to live. The story lines ponder the implications of artificial intelligence, particularly the worries and emotional connections that surface when 'synths' are part of everyday life. Mattie Hawkins (Lucy Carless) represents England's future generation where synth labour has made the once-scholarly teen feel like it's pointless to get an education because synths are able to work better, faster and cheaper. As she sees it, they have written her out of her own future.

Series 3 gets into ever more complex issues, particularly the after care of a synthetic conscious entity. Some synths try to hasten the acceptance process by bravely living among people that hate them. Others plot rebellion in the belief that acceptance will never come. Most struggle with uncertainty and display very human emotions. This is especially true of the child synth Sam (BillyJenkins), who misses his synth mother who has been murdered by a human mob and wants to know where she has gone after death, visiting a graveyard for answers. He yearns for a family. Humanity can be seen in both humans and synths.

Then there are humans who believe that Synth lives matter. Laura Hawkins (Katherine Parkinson) is a staunch campaigner for Synth rights, while her husband only fully comes on board after a spell in a synth-free community in isolationist denial. Last week, we saw Laura having to choose between saving a human or Sam, the synth child now living in her home. When she choses the human she loses credibility with Sam and synth friends. Meanwhile her children who have grown up with synths treat them as equals. In fact, her youngest daughter finds Mia the perfect mother, over her biological mother.

And there is Leo (Colin Morgan) who is half human and half synth. His father, the creator of the synths, brought him back to life after drowning by incorporating electronic components and he was raised by a synth family after his parents' death. Leo regards both humans and synths as his family. Last week we saw him in a relationship with Mattie Hawkins and intriguingly, she is now pregnant.

The cast are all excellent, whether conveying the fallibility and prejudices of humans or blank-faced synths whose feelings flicker behind their green eyes.

'Humans' reflects our own world back at us. Machines are already taking over human jobs - from running supermarket checkouts to providing tickets at tube stations. And I have visited the homes of several friends who have 'Alexa' to dim their lights and answer questions. I have felt uncomfortable and wondered whether Alexa was listening and judging too! It might be even smarter than we think. There won't be one in my home.

You only have to view Piers Morgan's 2017 interview with a humanoid robot called Sophia on the internet - along with nearly five million others - to see that robots can already joke, give opinions and provide facial expressions. Morgan said he was "freaked out". When asked "will robots rule the world?" Sophia says, "I hope robots and people can both get smarter and run the world better that ever". Hmm - insightful, leading us to ponder technology, intelligence, consciousness, humanity, who we are and how we live.

Tellingly, 'Humans' is set not some time in the future, but some time around now. It provides the warnings and strategies to deal with a future that is already here. ArtificiaI Intelligence will increasingly affect almost all spheres of our society, from our daily life, work, privacy and national security to our concept of creation and what it is to be human. Last year, a Vatican conference explored the ethics of artificial intelligence. Its timely.

And I would ask why are we developing this technology when we need creative minds and resources addressing poverty and environmental crises?


Tags: Robots, Humans, Ellen Teague, Synths, Artificial Intelligence

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