Tuesday 21 July 2015

Synthetic humans

Review: Channel 4 TV series, Humans

As the summer holidays get underway, I catch myself thinking wouldn't it be nice to have a synth in the house? In case you are not among the four million people hooked to Channel 4's latest Sunday-night drama, Humans, a synth is an aesthetically pleasing but slightly eery robot in human form that performs mundane and thankless tasks. I am looking for one to glide about the house making meals, tidying up after the kids and loading the washing machine. What's wrong with that? Well, quite a lot as it turns out.

Gemma Chan, who plays ‘Synth’ Anita in Channel 4 & AMC’s new drama, Humans.
The actor Gemma Chan who plays the synth Anita
Credit: Des Willie for Kudos
Set in a parallel present, Humans is part sci-fi thriller and part family drama with a clever script that constantly questions what it is to be human. This is 'theory of the mind' with a dash of adrenalin. While most synths are merely robots - albeit capable of inspiring affection in their human users - there is a small and secretive band of super-synths who have been modified: they have become conscious. In other words, they are capable of feeling and thinking like a human, while also operating as a complex machine. The boundaries between artificial and human intelligence are well and truly blurred.

Without getting too caught up in the plot, there is one particular super-synth called Anita, who was once known as Mia. The series begins with her capture (the super-synths are on the run) after which she is re-programmed and then sold on to a family to become their domestic drudge. Seemingly Anita has no memory of her days as Mia, a conscious synth, who was 'sister' to Leo (a resurrected human). When Leo eventually tracks her down, to his despair, she does not recognise him. He spends hours on his laptop trying to access her original memories and personality (aka source code) with no apparent success. "She's gone, she's not in there," he says, his face striken with grief. "Mia's dead." 

Identity crisis

For Leo, Mia no longer exists despite her physical presence because she has no recollection of their former life together. The poignancy of this broken relationship reminded me of what it is to lose a parent or grandparent to dementia, where cognitive functions, such as memory, language and problem-solving, are gradually eroded. Memories in particular form the fabric of our identity and without them we lose the currency by which we can maintain a relationship with other people. 

Of course our identity is constantly in flux over the course of time, owing to environmental factors and genetic triggers. We are not the exact same people we were, say, 10 years ago. Crucially, however, our ability to recall provides some kind of continuum, a thread that weaves together all of our past and present selves. 

The power of Channel 4's Humans resides in its ability to probe the boundaries of the human mind, while also telling a gripping story. The personality of Mia the synth does eventually re-surface, brought back by her latent capacity for empathy as well as some technical wizardry. Like the other super-synths, she is a triumph of human invention, but also a perceived threat to lesser mortals. I can't wait to see how the series resolves this tension.

My husband Will will be walking 100k non-stop along the Thames Path in September to raise money for Dementia UK. If you wish to sponsor him, click here.

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