Science fiction television and film has shown an interest in artificial intelligence, from the first time we heard HAL 9000 on film in 2001: A Space Odyssey to an early episode of The X-Files, when a smart building becomes a little too smart and tries to kill those who would stop it.
Even recently, AI was the focus of Fox's now-canceled Almost Human, where androids join police officers to fight crime.
However, most portrayals of AI are one-sided: either the AI has become self-aware and we feel sympathetic toward it, or the AI becomes self-aware, then becomes evil and decides to go on a murdering spree. In most science fiction, it's always been either one way or the other. In the end, either humans embrace the AI or they do everything they can to kill it.
However, in AMC's Humans, the AI is much more complicated than that, resulting in a series that is, perhaps, the most realistic portrayal of AI we've ever seen, along with the most realistic portrayal of humans' reactions to self-aware machines.
Here's how Humans tells a different story about AI.
The androids in Humans don't become self-aware: Dr. Elster created them that way.
In most other depictions of AI in film and on TV, the AI aren't usually self-aware right away, but slowly become that way. However, in Humans, Dr. David Elster creates machines that already have consciousness: they are born that way. Elster wanted androids that could experience emotions right off the bat, as well as machines that learned in the same way that human children learn: through experience. This explains why each android on the series is really its own "person."
Every android on Humans has a different personality.
It is this learning that creates each android on Humans. Because of their experiences, each is decidedly different. Those experiences create the "adult" android each becomes. This means that each android has its own personality. For example, Niska's experience as a sex droid makes her wary of humans, even hating them at one point. This leads her to decide that she wants to populate the world with self-aware androids, so they can take their rightful place as humans' superiors.
Then there's Ruth, a police officer, who is a synth, although no one around her knows that. She hides her true nature because she feels ashamed of it. This is due to the fact that Dr. Elster created her in the image of his deceased wife Beatrice, Leo's mother, which resulted in him denying her. When she finally reveals her secret to a co-worker, he shuns her. Eventually, Ruth believes that all synths, including herself, must die, because they are unnatural and dangerous.
Max is unlike either of these two synths: he is not only trusting of humans, but willing to give any human or synth the benefit of the doubt. His synth "heart" only knows kindness and he shows it to everyone around him. He is also always hopeful, no matter how difficult things get.
Not every synth is actually a synth.
One key difference in this series is that it shows a human-synth hybrid in Leo. Leo was Dr. Elster's son who died, but now has a brain that is half synth and half human, thanks to his father. This touches upon something that futurist Ray Kurzweil believes about the singularity. In his opinion, the singularity isn't when machines become self-aware, it's when humans combine with machines to become more than human.
"This merger of man and machine, coupled with the sudden explosion in machine intelligence and rapid innovation in the fields of gene research as well as nanotechnology, will result in a world where there is no distinction between the biological and the mechanical, or between physical and virtual reality," wrote Kurzweil in the article "The Future of Machine-Human Intelligence." "These technological revolutions will allow us to transcend our frail bodies with all their limitations. Illness, as we know it, will be eradicated."
Leo is a perfect example of this, a way that humanity cheats death and gains a new form of immortality, or as Kurzweil puts it, "we will be able to live as long as we choose."
The androids get hacked and re-programmed.
In Humans, androids are often re-purposed and re-programmed. This happens to Anita/Mia at the beginning of the series, where her initial consciousness is written over with a base program that turns her from a self-conscious machine into a standard android model. When Mattie Hawkins tries to hack into the android's head, she discovers some suspicious code that could represent the conscious part of Anita/Mia hidden away beneath her reprogramming.
This ability to reprogram a synth also plays into the season finale.
The series isn't about AI at all, but about humanity.
Ultimately, although Humans is a science fiction television series, the story here isn't about the androids, but about what it means to be human, hence its title. The series focuses on human characters and how they react in a world that's become technologically superior. And these people aren't perfect, but are dealing with their own internal conflicts that have nothing to do with synthetics at all.
Laura Hawkins, portrayed by Katherine Parkinson, is a good example of this. She has some issues in her past that keep her from being a better mother and wife.
"I think from Laura's point of view, you know, she is distracted and a bit emotionally and physically absent in the lives of her children and husband," said Parkinson during a media press call. "And yet, you know, when the synthetic, when Anita reads her child, she doesn't want to do it but she certainly doesn't want something or somebody else to do it. It definitely puts a mirror to the humans, their own flaws."
But most important, the androids also reflect humanity in their own consciousness. These androids, at times, seem even more human than the humans on the series: they have many of the same thoughts, fears, hopes and dreams as their human counterparts. And they care about each other.
Humans is realistic.
Humans is set in a similar timeline to our own, but one where androids have become a part of daily life, so the stories here often feel real to what's going on in our modern world. Even Popular Science wrote that the world of Humans is not that far from our own, pointing out that we already have the technology to make robots that look like us. Also, AI improves every day by leaps and bounds. We don't realize it, but AI is all around us: from Siri helping us get driving directions to the Roomba that vacuums our homes.
"It just allows you to have a debate about that, with a walking, talking version of that AI," said Tom Goodman-Hill, who portrays Joe Hawkins on the series. "So setting it in a world that feels very much like our own means that people are forced to engage with that argument and actually think about what it would be like if your iPad had legs."
The Humans season finale airs on AMC Sunday, Aug. 16.