Humans, and Why Robots on TV Are Just Like Us

Gemma Chan as Anita on AMC's Humans. Photo: Des Willie/AMC

AMC's British import Humans, itself an adaptation of the Swedish series Real Humans, feels a little like an episode of Black Mirror. Or Caprica. Or even The Returned, sort of, with that woozy sense of unease. It's effective as a domestic drama and as a can-the-robots-love story. But most great robot stories aren't about robots-qua-robots, they're about moments in culture — about what we're afraid of, whom we're afraid of, where the weak points are in the fragile construction of society. Humans works pretty well there, too.

Welcome to the present day, where humanity is now aided by "synths," humanoid helper robots. They have a slightly awkward gait and posture, and glowing, glassy eyes, but otherwise look completely human, including finger- and toenails, and for the female synths, breasts that require (well, indicate) the use of a brassiere. The synths are developing consciousness, because of course they are, and various humans have developed modifications for their synths, though that voids their warranties. No user-serviceable parts inside, etc. They appear mostly to do domestic and menial jobs, including child care, customer-service calls, in-home health care, and sanitation work. Do people fuck their robots? Yes, sometimes people fuck their robots or other robots, thanks to synth sex work.

There are plenty of stories about robots that look like robots. The robots-that-look-like-us stories, though, make for an easy exploration of the standards of humanity. Every story goes through similar motions: "What makes a person a person?" That's what some character has to ask. Then another character has to derisively look at a humanoid robot and say, "That hunk of junk? That's not a person; that's a [toaster] [tin can] [machine]." Then the show probably explores identity-building, information dissemination, concepts of what culture entails, and maybe love. The robots are there as a stand-in for the denigrated, asking audiences: Is this really how you treat the least among you?

On the modern Battlestar Galactica, the conversation around Cylons' personhood was a direct response to the "War on Terror": Some people thought torturing Cylons was appropriate and permissible, that Cylons weren't like them, that they'd know if there were a Cylon in their social group, and, plus, Cylon religion is stupid. Hmmm.

This pops up here and there on Doctor Who, a show that generally strives to affirm the dignity of all peace-loving entities. The Twilight Zone uses human-seeming-robot stories to depict the struggles of oppressed women: Just when Jana announces that she wants to move out of her parents' dictatorial home, she comes to realize that she's a robot — in time for her "father" to erase her memory and reprogram her to be a maid. In a lighter capacity, we have Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, representing the neurologically atypical — sometimes welcome in society, though less welcome when robot behavior becomes its most pronounced.

Humans' synths, then, are pretty clearly stand-ins for the working poor, maybe marginalized immigrants in particular, especially considering the show's genesis as a Swedish series. One character on Humans expresses exasperation when the customer-service rep on the phone turns out to be a synth, and a petulant human teen whines that she shouldn't have to bother pursuing anything meaningful since some synth will probably get there first. "You're not supposed to talk to me like that," and "that synth couldn't possibly understand that" will sound familiar to anyone who's either been around or insulted by the upper crust. How does someone present in a home become invisible to the people who live there? Can you see humanity in the people serving you, cleaning up after you, transactionally having sex with you?

There's plenty of other drama — including a heartbreaking plot about a widower who's hanging onto his outdated synth because it remembers his wife, a love plot between a human and a robot, tensions around maternal devotion, etc. It's not just allegory, which would get tedious, and it's also not a straight-up technological thriller, either. It is, however, growing into an impressively fleshed-out show, joining the ranks of other robo-oriented substantive dramas. (And Small Wonder.)