by Esan Swan
In the new season of the Channel 4 series Humans, even the robots are woke.
Human consciousness, automation and the role of humanoid robots in society are just a few of the thought-provoking questions that the science fiction drama attempts to answer.
When it first aired on Channel 4 in 2015, Humans became the channel’s highest rated drama in more than 20 years.
Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley are the visionary writers behind the show.
Originally a Swedish series called Real Humans, their adaptation has taken the subject of artificial intelligence (AI) and the implications of robot consciousness to British and American audiences.
“It was a very organic process, really. It was a wonderful thing to adapt because it was such a rich treasure chest of ideas, so we could pick and choose and go wherever we wanted with the full blessing of the original creator Lars Lundström,” says Vincent.
The show takes place in a parallel present not unlike our own, and explores a world where anthropomorphic robot assistants known as “synths” begin to develop consciousness, or “wake up.” The new robot reality changes the course of human history, allowing the audience to glimpse the potential future of AI technology.
“There’s no doubt that technology of this sort is changing our culture profoundly and rewiring us to a certain degree,” says Vincent.
Vincent and Brackley have been school friends since they were 11. Growing up in East London, the writing partners are both 38-years-old and were born five days apart.
At school they made videos together, but Vincent and Brackley didn’t start writing properly until they studied Film and Literature together at the University of Warwick. The duo went separate ways after university, but reconnected to write a film.
“We always thought we were going to be feature film writers, but obviously feature-length films don’t really get made a lot, certainly not in this country,” says Brackley.
“So we moved over to TV comedy for a bit and did a lot of sketch work on some late night TV shows that no one watched. From that we got our first proper writing gig on a show called Hotel Babylon on BBC One.”
After Hotel Babylon, Vincent and Brackley wrote episodes of the last two seasons of spy drama Spooks, before being approached to adapt Real Humans for the UK.
The duo was working on a similar idea for a show, but decided to use the Swedish version as a template to explore AI in their own way.
In preparation for taking on the world of artificial intelligence, Vincent and Brackley
spoke to leading experts such as DeepMind CEO Dr Demis Hassabis and Dr Christoff Koch, a neuroscientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science.
AI has been at the forefront of public consciousness for some time now. Back when the first series aired in 2015, the writing partners wondered whether the conversation about AI would die down and audiences would lose interest.
If anything, the opposite has happened, especially after recent advancements in AI technologies. The ambiguity surrounding the future of AI has allowed Vincent and Brackley to explore a variety of the philosophical questions in Humans.
“The best kind of science fiction looks at current societies by imagining the future,” says Vincent.
“When you reflect things through the prism that science fiction can give you, you find new insights. That is one of the most thrilling things about science fiction.”
Brackley’s views of technology have evolved since first starting the series. He says he isn’t quite convinced that there’ll be androids walking around, but he believes that AI will soon appear in form of virtual assistants and in ways that we can’t see such as organising the power and water systems of London.
“I can see that AI is going to be this fabulous tool, even though every other weekend in the papers there’s another article saying that AI is going to be the next existential threat to humanity. There are a lot of smart people who believe that to be the case,” he says.
“But I think after exploring our relationship with these technologies I’m a bit more optimistic and hopeful than I was at the beginning.”
Vincent has a slightly more ambivalent view than Brackley. He says he is somewhat fatalistic about the governing role technology plays in our lives, but that he’s not necessarily pessimistic.
“I’m essentially optimistic. We are governed by our technology, hooked on it, addicted to it,” he says. “We need it, and that’s not going to change. There’s no rolling this back. We’re on this train and we’re not turning back now.”
Part of the genius of Humans is the fact that it takes place in a parallel present world. This allows the series to reflect our own world whilst focusing on the synths, which then become a potent metaphor for the technology we use in our everyday lives.
In the new third series, the rights of awoken synths are the central theme and the show highlights the depths of human cruelty.
Vincent and Brackley say they couldn’t help but draw on the ways that different groups have been marginalised and oppressed, but were careful not to narrow the scope too far.
“You limit your metaphorical power when you focus too clearly and you say that this conflict is standing in for a real-world conflict,” says Vincent.
“Those parallels are always there. We never want to hit too hard or say that anything in the show stands for one particular thing, group or people but it’s all in there in terms of ideas.”
Both of the writers say they would have a synth if the technology were available today. Brackley says he would want one because he is lazy, whereas Sam says he would get one as an adult but worries about its potential effects on young children.
Vincent and Brackley are considering introducing a mind-bending experience for one of the main characters this season as Humans continues through the summer. The writing partners have won a BAFTA and a British Screenwriters’ Award for their work on the series.
There’s no official word on whether a fourth season will happen, but the duo say they would like to keep telling the story.
“If you get the opportunity to keep telling the story, you tell it as best you can,” says Brackley.
Featured Image by Esan Swan