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Humans Update

If you are a computer, AI, or philosophy geek, you should be watching Humans on AMC.  Tonight’s episode was amazing.  The lines between humans and AI are blurring, and there are a few surprises, including one very mind-altering discovery. (Some spoilers follow.)

This week’s script reminded me of the anime Armitage.  In case you are unfamiliar with the Armitage movies, they center around an android cop on Mars who has to hide her nature from everyone because she is afraid of being revealed as a humanoid AI.  In the movie, the people who hate the robots–the ones who fear them–break and burn them in the streets.  Protestors gather everywhere, saying the robots are replacing hard-working human citizens.  When a man starts killing and exposing sentient androids, Armitage’s position and those of her brethren are in danger.  She uncovers clues left by her creator–her “father”–leading to amazing discoveries about herself and her sisters.

Humans deals with many of the same issues and similar problems.  Is Anita real like a human?  Is it wrong when humans mistreat robots?  Both Mattie and Niska mention how mistreatment of synths is a reflection of the mistreatment formerly leveled at humans–primarily human women, now female androids.  Remember, “This mechanical maid is capable of serving more than just breakfast in bed.”  Obvious ties between slaves or indentured servitude and the positions held by the robots exist in the material shown.  The big difference is the majority of them seem to be incapable of realizing they are being abused.  For now.

Shorter Titles vs. Blowhards

There is something magical about a short-run series.  Fitting a character’s defining moments and a story’s framework into 12 or 24 episodes forces a writing team to shore any gaps and remove unnecessary “filler.”  Agent Carter, Shogun, and other made for TV miniseries tend to fit their shows into the short series box with ease.  Many anime series, such as Cowboy Bebop or Shirobako, manage to fit an immense amount of thought and emotion into several half-hour segments.

My current favorite short series is an anime called Your Lie in April.  The series starts with a piano prodigy losing the ability to “hear” the music.  Of course, he meets a violinist who helps him overcome his fears while dealing with her own performance issues.  I haven’t finished the series yet, but I’m looking forward to many heartaches and strategic character-changing events in its 22 episodes.

One of the worst cases for a series is when it doesn’t know it’s dead.  Right now, the top three I think of are Bones, NCIS, and sort of Big Bang Theory.  Granted, Big Bang has managed to reel old viewers back in with a possible Sheldon-Amy union and problems between Leonard and Penny (again), but when are the producers going to realize it’s hurting the show to meander through random social quagmires in order to continue selling merchandise and advertising spots?  Personally, I think they need to tie everything up and ride it to a conclusion before the show wears itself out.  Now, Bones and NCIS are a bit past the wearing out stage and into the “let’s finish this before we really embarrass ourselves” stage.  Bones and Booth left the show because producers thought Fox would cancel, except now they will probably come back after an episode or two because Fox gave them another season at the last minute.  I heard this will probably be their last season, so bravo to them for figuring it out.  Also, I think Emily Deschanel is ready to move on and do something else.  NCIS has been around forever, and its remaining characters refuse to move on with their lives.  Gibbs, Tony, and company continue the same routines, adding more permanent cast to the credits each season.  It’s been around since 2003, and those years are showing on the original members.  Let’s give them the round of applause they deserve for all of their brilliant episodes, but let them go.  Let the story end before it ends badly.

Of course, I’m missing hundreds of good and bad examples of short and long series—Mad Men did well with its seven seasons, minus the whole business of splitting the last one in half.  Still, I think the best stories can be worked into shorter timeframes, and the best writers and producers know when to write the final credits.

Humans Review

How do I feel about the new AMC show Humans?  In a word: excited.  Is it another show about an alternate reality filled with anthropomorphized machines?  Yes.  Do the machines remind the viewer of hundreds of other android tales, filled with rightfully frightened Luddites who realize the machines are more than they appear to be?  Of course.  It wouldn’t be a believable sci-fi android/AI show if it didn’t reference the past, present, and future of technology and sci-fi tech.

First, a quick aside.  In case you missed it, the opening credits of Humans features videos of real androids, minus the parts where they fall down or otherwise malfunction.  The videos establish a link between our reality and the reality of the show, adding an irresistible little nugget for people like myself who love seeing how the human mind can turn dreams into reality.  Sure, it still takes a robot hours to fold a shirt, but isn’t it cool to see a robot doing laundry, even if it takes way more time and effort than doing it yourself?  Anyway, back to the show.

The androids of Humans are governed by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.  They cannot harm humans or, by inaction, cause humans to come to harm—this includes humanity in general (Law 0).  They must obey commands given by humans, and they cannot allow harm to come to themselves, unless doing so conflicts with the first two laws.  Of course, the series starts with a group of renegade androids (“synths” or “synthetics”) and their human counterpart fleeing from a group of humans trying to capture them.  Trouble besets them on the road, and the group is split.  Each android introduces the viewer to other pieces of the puzzle: a family struggling with various personal issues; a police officer whose dislike of synths grows each day; and an aging Geppetto who cannot bear to see his remaining link to the past—his synth Odi—deteriorate.

While the basic premise is an action-drama about androids running from big and possibly bad corporate-scientist types, the real meat and potatoes of Humans deals with harder issues:  what does it mean to be human; how are advances in technology changing people’s ways of life; will removing people from various human interactions negatively impact a person’s quality of life.  One of the main characters asks why she should bother working hard in school, when a machine can and probably will replace her.  She hears an advocate for the advancement of technology proclaim that newer, better synthetics will give people more time to live as humans instead of machines, causing her to remark, “so, what, we’ll all be poets then.”

Both sides of the technological divide are present in Humans.  Dr. Millican, the resident Geppetto, is relieved and comforted by his synth, who reminds him of better times and keeps him occupied after a stroke and the loss of his wife.  However, the presence of an android sent by his insurance company reflects current fears of the invasion of privacy by sharing too much information.  He is trapped by a conglomerate who claims the right to tell him what to do “for his own good.”  The policeman’s wife is also aided by an insurance-mandated synth after an accident, but the android’s negative impact on her and her husband’s emotional well-being is apparent from the first episode.  This is one of the other major issues presented in Humans:  when is working for the greater good really working towards a great evil.  Insurance companies and scientists “needing” to advance technology are the first invaders presented by the series; I imagine many more will appear as the season progresses.

Human beings and androids share blame for the wrongs and victory for the rights in Humans.  The turns in the narrative remind me of other current dramas with androids, especially the comic Alex+Ada.  Like most of the best sci-fi—the best storytelling—it is less about the fantastical elements and more about how the characters react to certain situations.  I haven’t seen the Swedish inspiration for Humans—a show called Real Humans—but I can say I like what I’m seeing from this British-American version.  The story grabs you and pulls you in.  I can’t wait until next week.  See you then.