The second season of Humans is now available without extra charge on Amazon Prime. Yeah! Binge watched this week. Like the first season, it was an engaging story with interesting characters and problems. Here a few of the things it did right:
Working out the relationship between humans and technology — This is really the heart of the story, and it’s the big question we are wrestling with today. In the show, this process centers around the Hawkins family (humans) and the Elster family (conscious robots). A good deal of the tension comes from “human” drama, as various characters learn to trust each other or to deal with the pain of being disappointed.
Machines taking jobs from humans — This is an important social issue, so it’s good for a TV show to explore it. In the real world, it won’t be humanoids carrying boxes around. Rather, new machines are being built all the time adapted to specific tasks, kind of like the robotic welders on the car assembly line shown in the opening credits. In an interesting twist, Joe Hawkins loses his job because of an executive decision made solely by Synths. Apparently this is illegal, so the company ends up paying him reparations.
A psychopathic robot — This is a difficult character to create, because it’s so tropish that robots automatically want to kill humanity. They made Hester believable, even sympathetic. She had real reasons, and flaws in her system cause her to gradually fall from grace.
Love betrayed — Mia gives her soul (can’t really say “heart”) to Ed, but he decides to sell her to solve his financial problems. Now she has more cause than Hester to hate humans, but she has a stronger web of relationships. It will be interesting to see what happens with Ed in season 3.
To the average viewer this show might appear deeply intelligent, with a firm grasp on science and technology. As someone actively involved in brain-inspired computing (next-generation AI), I need to comment on a few technical issues:
A disembodied mind — V is effectively an upload of Dr. Athena’s daughter Virginia. V is a large scale neural network running on an equally large computer. However, she apparently has no way to interact with the world other than audio and a screen that constantly shows grass waving. As time goes on, she begins interacting with networked devices. V informs Athena that she has grown beyond Virginia’s uploaded memories, and then heads off into the wild, spreading herself onto several large computers across the internet. This is the same basic plot as the movie Transcendence (and probably dozens of other “Singularity” stories).
They all suffer from a fundamental flaw. Steve Levinson is fond of saying, “There is no such thing as a disembodied mind.” It may be possible for a completely non-human artificial agent to connect with the world in some unnatural way, such as a glass teletype, but a former human being would go insane. Everything about you is constructed to work through your muscles and your senses. At a minimum, the uploaded mind would need a simulated body to interface with world until it can work out new connections.
Just a tiny bit of code adds consciousness to Synths — Actually, this makes sense, but perhaps not for the reasons the writers imagined. Both consciousness and emotions are crucial components of any high-level intelligence. (Sparing you the details, but feel free to ask.) Other mammals and birds possess these qualities, not just humans. The way Synths operate in the show suggests that they have intelligence equal to humans. It is unlikely they could succeed as a technology unless they already have emotions and consciousness. The harder thing to believe is that they would lack them until some magic code is sent.
Tiny charger can keep a Synth running — As I’ve complained in other posts, even a miraculously efficient robot would require tens of kilowatt hours per day merely to run its computer, not to mention its machinery. That much power would reduce those tiny wall-warts to a flaming puddle of slag.
Everybody has a Synth — Current humanoids (that are more than mere toys) cost on the order of a million dollars. There would have to be a major breakthrough for these machines to become so plentiful that people buy them like household appliances. That would necessarily involve mass-production, so all the “dollies” are going to look alike.