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The writers and cast of AMC's mini-series Humans turn up the heat on artificial intelligence

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Jun 29, 2015, 5:49 PM EDT (Updated)

Artificial intelligence is a hotbed topic these days, having been featured prominently in recent films such as Ex Machina, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Her and even Chappie. AMC's eight-part mini-series Humans starts Sunday night and is sure to keep the discussion of artificial intelligence going.

Humans presents an alternate vision of our world in which Synthetics, or Synths, can be purchased to solve all of the problems at home or work. Joe Hawkings (Tom Goodman-Hill), wanting to maximize the little spare time he has with his family, purchases a Synth, naming it Anita (Gemma Chant), not knowing what kind of effects it will have on his wife Laura (Katherine Parkinson) and his kids. He also assumes it's a new model when, in fact, Anita was part of a "family" of free-willed synths that were separated and are trying to reunite through the efforts of a mysterious fugitive Leo (Colin Morgan). In another story, Dr. Millican (William Hurt), one of the original engineers of the Synths, is experiencing memory loss, leading his father-son type attachment to Odi (Will Tudor), a malfunctioning Synth, to an unhealthy level. Though simple in concept, Humans is richly deep and complex in character study and balances the domestic drama with surreal. While there is hope of a second season, the writers promise a satisfying conclusion to the threads introduced.

Science fiction author Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics are certainly a foundation on which Humans is built, but it is the award-winning Swedish network drama Real Humans from which AMC's adaptation gets the most inspiration. There is also a real creep factor, at times giving off horror vibes as the lines between human and machine become blurred. Blastr participated in conference calls with writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, as well as stars Tom Goodman-Hill, Katherine Parkinson, William Hurt and Gemma Chan.

William and Gemma, what originally fascinated you about Humans?

William Hurt: As I began to read science fiction, important science fiction, specific, most especially Isaac Asimov and began to realize that it wasn't anywhere near as much fiction as people were thinking, or generally people were thinking. It fired my imagination, you know, to red hot. I just realized what they were talking about was anything but imaginary, and so I was enthralled. The thing about Humans that most interested me as a specific project was the stance from which the questions about the whole subject are posed and asked. The stance is our life today. So, it's not about the future ... it's the present being asked what the future's going to be, by introducing that future to us now, who we are now. So, it really is a vivid way of posing the questions to viewers today.

Gemma Chan: I’m a huge fan of sci-fi, and I’m familiar with the films that we’ve had in terms that deal with AI, and I thought, what the show has is, it’s actually a refreshing take on the AI genres for me. It’s often set in the future kind of world and often it will be presented as a dystopia, occasionally, and I think in the world of Humans, the fact that it’s set in an alternate present and very much in the now, that was interesting to me, and I love the fact that it seemed to deal with more the emotional and philosophical implications of having this technology as part of our everyday lives. There are elements of suspense and thriller in the show as well, but, for me, it was the emotional, philosophical side of things that I thought the show explores, that I thought was really interesting and refreshing.

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One of the interesting things about seeing in the early episodes is how the synths are kind of a device for showing character flaws in the humans. Even amongst the Synths, their own shortcomings in programming,  as some models were built to feel emotions, others are not based on designed functionality. Can you talk about how synths are this plot device to show and reflect character flaws and shortcomings in characters? 

Tom Goodman-Hill: Yes, because that was the thing that initially appealed to me. Despite the stresses on him at the beginning of the show, Joe is pretty secure in who he thinks he is. He hasn't really thought about that at all. He rushes headlong into purchasing Anita without thinking about what that's going to do to him personally. He thinks it's going to solve lots of problems, but what he's not expecting is to find that talking and engaging with Anita reflects back on himself and makes him sit up and think about the kind of person he is. That is actually beneficial to him. Although, as you'll see, everything unravels in the show for the Hawkins family. Ultimately, it's a good thing that's happened to them. It's made them sit up and think about the kind of people they are. Purchasing Anita actually makes Laura address her own problems in a completely different and unexpected way that Joe just doesn't predict. That kind of frustrates him, because it's not what he thought was going to happen.

Katherine Parkinson: 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. I think that she is quite complex and sort of very introspective. I think she's not a resolved person. That was quite tiring to play, because it's a state that you carry around with you, and can be quite difficult to get rid of at the end of the day. And yet, you know, 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.

Gemma Chan: Anita’s relationship with Laura definitely changes and evolves over the course of the show, as indeed her relationship with every individual family member evolves over the show, and Anita will be changed by her time with the Hawkins family. She won’t be the same, and they won’t be the same at the end of it, as well. I love that! I love the fact that, when Anita's first introduced to the house, she kind of acts like a mirror to the rest of the family and depending on each of their individual prejudices and needs and wants, she holds up a mirror to that, and so each family member has a different reaction to her, and vice versa.

Jonathan Brackley: You know, I think, as you’ve rightly pointed out, the humans are sort of thrown into sharp relief by the sort of perfectness of the Synths in their sort of movement, and also the way they, you know, conduct themselves. I think that was a very sort of deliberate choice physically for us when we were creating this show. We wanted the Synths to move in a very graceful way, and that was born out of a sort of very practical concern, because we wanted to treat the show in a very realistic way, and, if these things really did exist, they would use a massive, massive amount of power. So they could never waste a single movement. Everything would have to be very economical. And so they tend to move with a very sort of graceful smoothness.

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William, do you think the three robotic laws that Asimov laid out are enough, and is your character going to personally explore this as kind of the creator of these Synth, which the name in itself gives an elevation over robots or androids?

William Hurt: I, myself, think that if Synths are to allowed to become or insist on becoming sentient, that sentience will be a function of a consciousness that is, in itself, a function of very, very complex ethical interactions, ethics that are somehow, rather transcribed into the root files of the hardware and software that go into the huge conference call of their mind, you know? I think that the rudiments, the basic rules, are great fundamental ethical guidelines, but I think that the real interaction of ethics is as complex as a 1,500-year Buddhist conversion. That's where consciousness actually comes from, is that every human being has thousands of voices in their mind and spirit, interacting to create, in a sense, the being of a human being. If this singularity of sentience were to take place, it will take place as a matter of extraordinarily complex comprehension of all the interactive elements that go into the thing we call consciousness. I think that's quite a long ways off. I think that this thing that we're calling the singularity, what we call the technological singularity ... there are other kinds of singularity. I think that the bare beginnings of the conversation about that are starting now as the rudiments of an immature computer technology are showing us the hints of the future that may be coming, or some of the vast questions about it that may be coming. But I think Asimov, in his absolute brilliance, was able to reduce it to three principles that we can resonate with right now, and I'm glad for him. I'm glad for his existence. I'm grateful that I was alive to read him.

In the show, they mention the technological singularity. We've been warned by guys like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk that that is a possibility. Katherine and Tom, do either of you believe that AI will actually exceed human intelligence?

Katherine Parkinson: Oh, yes. I mean, I started out as of a few weeks ago thinking that possibility was the word, but the last couple weeks, doing some publicity things, I think that, actually, it's inevitable, and it's around the corner and possibly going to happen sooner than we thought. That's not necessarily a terrifying, awful thing. It's a wonderful thing first and foremost. It's about, sort of, knowing that there might be detrimental consequences and hopefully trying to be prepared for them and manage them. So, yes, but I'm quite scared.

Tom Goodman-Hill: It doesn't scare me, but I do think, if we don't start having serious debates about it now, then, in one way or another, AI will run away with it. That's not about, you know, bowing to our robot overlords. It's more about what impact it has on society. The danger, as people like J.G. Ballard predicted, is that it will fracture society, it will destroy society if everyone purely engages with their AI and stops talking to the person sitting next to them.

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Can humans love a machine?

William Hurt: I don't think you can really love a machine in the way that you would love a human being, unless -- and this may sound flippant -- but unless the machine becomes human. So I think that's our task. If you want to have as fulfilling a relationship with a machine as you do with a human being, then you better make sure that, that machine is as fulfilled, or potentially fulfilled as a human being is, and that would be our task. I hope [Humans] does [bring up questions], and I hope it does to the American audience as it is already done so beautifully with the British, because they responded very, very loud and clear to it. And I'm hoping we Americans do the same.

Could some of you each share maybe one moment in real life where you were creeped out by some type of technological advancement, machine or electronic gadget?

Jonathan Brackley: I’m still freaked out by, you know, ads that are targeted at me by things that I’ve looked up on the Internet. That still freaks me out, because I often forget that I’ve looked for the thing in the first place. So, when I see the ad I think, oh, my god, they just looked into my brain. But then I’ll remember that I probably, you know, searched for it on Google about half an hour before. 

Sam Vincent: That’s true. But what’s happening there is that your natural thought process is the natural process of forgetting. You know technology has taken advantage of the fact that you forget, to sell you something. So, that’s kind of scary.

Tom Goodman-Hill: Every day, when I see cookies come up or I know that there's kind of phishing online. I see targeted adverts in my web browser. I find that, you know, every decision I make is now displayed in front of me every time I surf the web. It makes you think about the sort of person you are --

Katherine Parkinson: Very recently, I thought, how come it's such a coincidence that all the adverts that seem to pop up are about clothes I like and holidays in Cornwall, and then I realized it was this system where they knew that.

Tom Goodman-Hill: Yes, and it's awful. Actually, what it does is it narrows you, it narrows you down. If the advertisements that come up online are not for anything new and not for anything that you've never considered before, then your mind is being narrowed. That's horrible.

Katherine Parkinson: And I keep dressing badly so I don't know if that keeps happening. [Laughs]

Gemma Chan:  I would say that, before I filmed the show, I already had a love/hate relationship with technology and my phone. I’m so reliant on it, but I hate how reliant I have become on it. I’m really fascinated  by the technical innovations that seems to be happening all around us now and the technology in the show is not many miles away. The Henn-Na Hotel in Japan is going to be completely staffed by robots. You check in, and the receptionist robot will text you and it can speak four languages. [Robots resemble] a human the whole time you’re there, [but] a robot cleans your room and you know, that’s -- it’s kind of insane, but I guess it’s happening, so we definitely need to be having conversations about that and what impact it has on us. People who’ve lost limbs or had amputations, and you can now have a prosthetic limb that widens your brain, and you can now control it. I mean, that’s amazing. If you can improve people’s lives by that, I think, you know, we have to be open to progress in that way, but I would say that we need to think about the implications of everything that we do.

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Katherine Parkison:I feel like I'm scared of pornography, and what it's doing to society. You know, and how the synthetic, manufactured images are replacing and competing with real things. What they might do to conjugal relationships, or what that might do to young people's sexuality. Where they might only be able to be aroused by artificial things. You know, when people talk about Anita in terms of being attractive. The word attractive is a word I would not necessarily associate with something that we know is a machine. There's become a blurring about what is real and what is not.

Jonathan Brackley: The last few years, our everyday technology, our phones, iPads and computers, etc., have become so much more intuitive in the way we connect to them. We now use our technology so much more to conduct our personal, professional and emotional lives and conduct relationships, really. That process has kind of increased exponentially over the last decade. Case in point, Siri on the iPhone and it’s -- you know, we no longer have to have kind of complicated systems of input and interfaces. We can just speak to our technology and we can speak to our phone and it will understand us. To think that, alongside that, it’s becoming powerful and more mysterious. It’s ever more kind of locked away from us. We can’t go unscrewing it. We’re not encouraged to go finding out how it really works, because it’s also so much more complicated and powerful. So I think that maybe there’s a little bit of unease about the disconnect between the mysterious, ever-increasing power it has, and yet its seeming ability to understand us better and better, even as we understand it less and less.

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Humans is an eight-part mini-series that premieres Sunday, June 28, on AMC at 9/8c 

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