“The best reason to make machines more like people is to make people less like machines,” declares a scientist in AMC’s intriguing new drama Humans. Sounds kinda great, doesn’t it — genial, talking and walking Siris to do the housework and other drudgery that keeps us from the stuff we really long to do?
But what if there comes a point where we create technology so sophisticated that it no longer requires us to advance and repair itself — a theory dubbed the Singularity by mathematician John von Neumann in 1958? What is the incentive to excel in school or our workplace if machines can be programmed to perform equally well? Why do we become so attached to devices that can’t love us back — and would we love them the most if they could be “taught” to return our affections?
Set in a “parallel present” where the latest must-have technology is a robotic helper known as a “synth,” Humans focuses on three converging storylines: suburban parents at odds over the purpose of their new acquisition; a “family” of synths desperate to hide a frightening secret; and elderly widower Dr. George Millican (William Hurt), a pioneer in synth technology who is fighting the replacement of his outdated bot Odi — the beloved repository for years of memories George has lost to a stroke — with a newer, more vigilant model intended to preserve his health.
To quiz Hurt about Humans is to discover he clearly relishes its subject matter, displaying a thoughtful intellect that makes the series’ ideas even more provocative.
CGM: There is so much going on in the pilot alone in terms of social issues, psychological issues and where technology and our addiction to it are leading us. What was your initial reaction when you were given the first script?
WH: My first thought about the script was, “Wow!” My second thought was “Yay!” So much to explore and contemplate — and, also, to create. So many recent admonitions about the entire subject from authorities widely admired as relevant and responsible.
For me, the dimension of televised treatments about major modern social issues is that the production usually only addresses the topic from one point of view — and it’s usually found easier to arrange that that point of view be from the one least pertinent to the visceral lives of most people the question affects most directly. For instance, in Too Big To Fail —though it was well done and I’m proud of it — my constant inner question was, “aside from the rightness of explaining what happened in the rarefied halls of some remarkable decision makers, when will we do a full treatment of the pain being suffered by the people who took that hit the hardest? Which was the 8 million Americans who suddenly couldn’t pay a mortgage and had to drop off their keys in the mortgage broker’s mailbox — jingle mail, it’s called, sadly — and sneak out of the county late at night with their children sleeping in the back seat and their possessions hitched behind it in a U-Haul trailer?” The usual reference point for the exposure of a major topic is from a position higher up — executives, say, or kings, queens, etc. It’s just easier, I guess, for networks to try to go to higher geographical ground from which to survey the field-of-topic battle.
Humans is specifically built on the opposite of the high-ground premise. It deals in the trenches — the kitchens and dining rooms and bedrooms of middle-class homes — where it imagines something both simple and crucially complex: the physical relationships between humans and the machines they either make or tacitly allow to be made and to serve them in ways projected by designers to be a good idea but are not quite so practical in the long run. And, then, not at all what anyone had in mind. People are right to be nervous about it. … There is absolutely no dimension of man’s intellectual or material existence that the computer will not affect and then re-affect. It’s a done deal. The question is how we interact with it, how wise we are, how philosophical we are. That’s the real issue, here: philosophy — literally, “love of thought.”
Were you aware of the singularity or Asimov’s Laws prior to tapping into this project?
Of course, yes. Profoundly important to me, Asimov. Seminal. Almost as important as Moby Dick. I could go on way too long about the different versions of the Singularity. I don’t actually call it The Singularity. I call it The Singularities. Plural. I know that’s a contradiction in terms but I happen to be one of those who feels certain, and have for a long time, that there are simultaneous universes, too, so — go figure.
To keep it short, the Protocols are safeguards but, even as originally expressed, had a mite of ironic smile tucked in the corner of their ideological masticators. What this means is that they were intentionally oversimplified, in my opinion, for the sake of the general stating of a thematic question as yet unanswered at the time of writing and unanswerable because the form of technology is as bound to change as anything in evolution. The form will follow the function and the pieces will fit the wearer. Everything Asimov wrote was filled with humaneness. All great artists have it, and not at the expense of courageous truth-facing. He was a relativist and the Laws are supple.
George is aging and suffering health issues that make him reliant on Odi to retain memories for him and keep him connected to his life with his late wife — but he’s having a much more militant synth foisted on him. We’re already caught up in the corporate machine where the drug and insurance companies and health care are concerned. So do you think is George’s storyline in particular puts a semi-human face to that idea that once you have a chronic health issues, you are forever part of a system you have limited, if any, control over?
I heard the other day that in Japan and America there have been surveys taken that suggest the aging populations in those cultures have fewer reservations about having a synth/bot/whatever (no offense, Odi) take care of them in their old age than most Europeans — and especially Brits. Which makes me want to move to England, personally, because I am not at all sure I want to trade human company for synthetic (again, Odi, be calm). And I mean at all. “Humans” does pose many of the questions in ways that normally aspirated humans can identify with and does it in a way that dignifies humanity. One of the assertions here is that humans, from whom humanitarianism derives, deserve a lot of credit.
To put it very simply, if I am going to a hospice, I want a real human hand holding mine. But the attention Odi gets from George and the interaction of that maintenance with the memory banks Odi keeps available to George to keep George’s wife poignantly “alive” raises the real question about the sanctity of memory and the identity of emotion. Memory is the most important thing.
Pretty much everyone feels overworked and overscheduled and underappreciated at some point, so the idea of humanoid beings doing manual and dangerous labor and all the things we don’t want to do so we can do the things we do want to do is terrifically appealing. But as we see in the pilot, the idea of purpose and place in our family, our workplace, our community is as vital to who we are as people as the freedom to do as we please. Can you talk more about that incredible fertile element of storytelling in this series?
Absolutely, we all do — overworked, underappreciated. Humans are in a tight-fitting accelerator, no question. It’s a race. What can be said? But it has been ever thus. And, yes, purpose, place, community — vital, and vital means “life.”
This is where Humans finds its heart and soul as an artistic proposition — it’s personal. Perhaps, especially, for the sentient synths. Life is as essentially personal as communal, as unique as it is ordinary. What’s most important about it is that there is no more accurate way to know the experience of others than by knowing the personal. It’s one of the great ironies that we don’t really feel our kinship and togetherness with others till we know how fundamentally we are alone — and that we don’t know compassion until we can take moralizing judgment out of the equation. It’s a revelation, knowing — for all of us — how much courage it takes to simply be alive.
So, there’s this question of sentience. My position on sentience is that it is a function of the capacity for true — not evasive or evaded — suffering, and true — not evasive or evaded —joy. Sensitivity. But this is, synchronously, a subject not easily reduced.
There is a line in the pilot that especially caught my attention, which was, “The best reason to make machines more like people is to make people less like machines.” But even now with our smart phones and our tablets, we’re becoming less about interacting with one another and more about interacting with our devices and via social media. “One hundred and forty characters or less” makes you a communications wizard instead of the ability to make compelling conversation. Where are you personally in terms of how you use technology?
I know how you feel, but I don’t necessarily agree, if only because I don’t feel I know what is happening, let alone what will be. Are you sure it was better than it is? Or, is it worse than it will be? There’s a real lot of communication going on. The hive is buzzing.
Sometimes, I imagine if we, the older, really put more effort into listening without judgment to the armies of young heads bent down over their iPhones and to what they are really saying, might we not hear their pity for us as they see us be as freakin’ bewildered by what is second nature to them as something was second nature to us compared to our parents?
When I reflect on this subject I always remember that my father was born by the light of a kerosene lamp, that I was born to the light of an electric bulb controlled by a switch on a wall, that my children are born with 35,000 bytes per second, or whatever the figure was or is, in a room called a matrix. One hundred and forty characters — certainly not my own style — may be haiku territory. Maybe some of the greatest poetry, defined as the fewest words with the most meaning, is yet to come because of the talents being refined by those who practice that craft as I speak all these way too many words.
To answer: I use technology. I wouldn’t want it to dance alone!
Humans premieres Sunday, June 28 at 9/8CT on AMC.