The writers of Humans are ready for the singularity

Talking about AI with 'Humans' writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley


If the singularity is coming for us, then it won’t arrive with a violent robot uprising but with the confused and cautious first steps of a new kind of human consciousness. That’s how writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley have approached Humans, AMC’s upcoming series about androids living among us. Set in a parallel present, the series is about a world where a robotic servant class known as synths live with humans as yet another everyday gadget. But rather than going down the typical thriller path of asking what artificially intelligent automatons might do to us if they became self-aware, Vincent and Brackley ask what happens to us when we form relationships with feeling machines.

Humans is the latest entry in an ongoing moment for AI fantasies, and therefore can’t promise to break much ground. This year alone, Ex Machina explored artificial intelligence from its origins in Silicon Valley, and HBO’s Westworld revamp promises to show robots designed to be outlets for human vices. However, Humans is much more concerned with what it means for humans to live with robots in a world that already accepts them. What does it mean for family life? How does it change how we relate to other people? How might our robot servants want to relate to us if they somehow evolved? In that way, it’s an intimate look at what the future of Siri, Cortana, and Alexa might one day look like, and the philosophical questions both humans and machines will have to ask one another when that day comes.

Vincent and Brackley aren’t afraid of our smart machines. They’d rather think about how to expand what it means to be human. I recently spoke to them about Humans, machines, and what it means to be caught in between.

Recently we've seen a lot of television and movies about living with AIs, particular humanoid AIs. Ex Machina, Almost Human. What makes 'Humans' differ?

Jonathan Brackley: I think the main thing, and this is something that we've taken from the original Swedish show on which [Humans] is based, and that's that we approach it in a very grounded way through a domestic setting. It's a world that's just like ours. It's a parallel present. So we approach the show looking at this sort of ensemble of characters in very normal settings, houses, homes all around the UK and everything. So I think that's probably the thing that marks it out.

Sam Vincent: Yeah, it's not a straightforward thriller. There's more to it. It's a family drama, it's a relationship drama. It's not set in the future, it's set today. It's not about the origins of this technology, [and] most stories are about the origins. We just start our story saying, these things have been around for 10 years. They’re just a fact of life and part of the fabric of our society now. The original Swedish version had that viewpoint, and it just opens up dozens more ways to examine the story, because you're now going in through a very human level of emotions, relationships, and you're not so worried about the genre aspects of the show, though they are there.

These machines, for the most part, are treated like gadgets, despite the whole uncanny element of a person-shaped thing walking around with my family. How did you approach that emotionally? There must be some cognitive disconnect there.

SV: Yeah, I think there is, undoubtedly. If you had machines that looked and acted like us, and yet we know they're not us, we think that they don't have any thoughts and therefore we can treat them however we want, that's got to do strange things to people's heads. What would that do to the development of human empathy, if you can just kick [a synth] in the face because you've had a bad day, and it's like kicking your fridge? But it looks and feels like a human. Does that make you more likely to kick a human? Just as an example of one thought process that can kind of become warped by the presence of these things.

Humans Still

So do you think the Singularity is coming for us?

SV: Yeah, next week. Thursday.

JB: It's gonna be great publicity for the show!

SV: We're getting ready. Well, the singularity... there's a lot of argument about what it means in AI. Some people just mean a certain level of when a computer system can operate on the sort of data level of a human brain, not necessarily do what a human brain can. Other people think it means the advent of "true AI," machines that can actually think and feel and make decisions of their own, and are self-aware. Some people think it'll happen in 20 years, and some people think it's a meaningless term. There's a lot of argument about it. I think we're very optimistic. We're not Elon Musk or Stephen Hawking or Bill Gates, the recent people who have warned against it... As I say that, I think, "Why am I not with them?"

JB: Why are we blowing this? [Laughs.]

SV: They know what they're talking about. But just how we feel about it personally, we don't feel that worried about it. We're not going to put the brakes on human progress. That's not going to happen, that's just not in our makeup.

JB: It's up to us to prepare and adapt to the technology and be prepared to use it and develop it responsibly. As Sam said, it's not like we're going to stop.

SV: We already invented nuclear weapons, and apart from two uses in wartime, they're all still there. We've had some near misses. Not great. But we're all still here. We've managed to hold those. And I was recently reading an article by one of the co-founders of a company called Deep Mind, and he just kind of [stated] that our intentions for artificial intelligence are for a tool. We're going to make it, we will make sure that it does what we want it to, and it's no different from anything else.

"We're certainly not scared a robot uprising's going to kill us all."

JB: We're certainly not scared a robot uprising's going to kill us all, and our show is absolutely not that.

In the show, you have robots very much related to labor and work and serving humanity. But you also deal with how they develop relationships with us, even after they stop serving us. How far do you take that idea in the show?

SV: Well, yes, that’s the level the show operates on. It's very much about what, as you say, comes after, what happens if they find some kind of higher purpose, or higher abilities within themselves. Then everything changes, for them and for us. That's the more speculative AI that's more fantastical, and really is an allegory for what's happening in our society today. Is the increasing automation with jobs [becoming] more and more of a threat as automation becomes more and more advanced? That very much is what we do in Humans and is very much an extrapolation of that. We're standing in for the process of automation of industry and labor that's been happening since the Industrial Revolution 200 years ago. Really it's a process that's been going on a long, long time now. But those are the levels that the show is operating on. And we always wanted to examine both, [to] play with the higher ideas. What could happen if a machine became more than a machine, but also what happens in our society with the machines that we have now?

Humans Still

So this is debuting on AMC, and the idea is that you want to continue crafting this mythology about machines becoming more human. Do you have any ideas about where the show might go down the line? Maybe expand the story globally?

JB: For this season we wanted to tie up all the threads and sort of resolve the mystery to make it a sort of satisfying, one season. However, at the end, it is left open ended, and so with any luck we will get a season two, which would be lovely, and we've got so many ideas already to take it. You're right, we will probably take it slightly further afield, but yeah, we've got a lot.

SV: We'll go where the story takes us, but if it doesn't, we'll be happy with that, because we're just thinking of it as a universal story, with Americans watching here thinking, this story happens here every bit as much as it happens there across the world. Technology seems to be understanding us better and better all the time, and we understand it less and less. So yes, we'll let the story dictate, but we certainly do have ideas about where it goes in the future, if we're lucky enough to come back.

What is it specifically about humanoid robots, more than just the automation in robotics, that is attractive for people right now, with so much that's happening in the world?

SV: That is a good question, and it brings me to the concept of the uncanny valley, the idea that as something gets closer to appearing human, but not quite human, the kind of more eerie and upsetting it gets, until it becomes completely human. What we're doing with our synths, is we've passed them through the uncanny valley and they're almost all the way out because they are human enough. But we have the problem of the movement and the eyes. So they're not quite all the way out. They never make us feel sick or scared, but they're just doing enough to send a chill down the spine.

JB: But I think humanoids being automatons has been a fascination in the culture and literature and books and films, TV, over the ages, whether that's from Frankenstein and the Golem. It's a story that's been with us for a long time. It just so happens that now it's coinciding with the actual technological abilities of AI. It's a world that's just around the corner, and it's marrying the two, the sort of fictional fantasy of it with the technological capability. Now is just a particularly prime opportunity to explore that.

SV: I think that deep within our collective consciousness, since we first crawled out of the cave and realized that we could make things, and that we could get better at making things by learning and teaching each other, the natural endpoint is: can you make another man. The natural endpoint of human activity is to create another human being. So that's why I think it goes back to that in a way, and technology has been racing to that, particularly in the last couple hundred years. It's never been closer to fulfillment.