SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents -

Chan­nel 4’s bril­liant, chill­ing Ai drama re­turns.

t was in South Korea, ear­lier this year, that the ma­chines fi­nally won. There was no blood, how­ever. No vi­o­lence. No death. It was just an ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence pro­gram that had achieved the im­pos­si­ble: it beat a man at a board game. A bit of con­text here: Go is not just any old board game. It’s an ab­stract war sim­u­la­tion, founded in China nearly 3,000 years ago. Its rules are sim­ple but its pos­si­bil­i­ties are seem­ingly end­less, with there be­ing more le­gal moves on a board of Go than there are atoms in the vis­i­ble uni­verse. It’s a game of such depth and nu­ance that no AI could ever hope to best it – un­til March, when Al­phaGo, de­vel­oped by Google’s Deep­Mind depart­ment, con­sec­u­tively beat the best Go player in the world, Lee Sedol. At one point it played a move so stun­ning that Sedol stood up and left the room. After­wards, a com­men­ta­tor wrote that watch­ing the game made him “phys­i­cally un­well”.

Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brack­ley, co-writ­ers of Chan­nel 4 hit Hu­mans, have a spe­cial in­ter­est in that story. For one, they have be­come friends with Demis Hass­abis, the CEO of Deep­Mind. And two, as Vincent says, “The thing about Al­phaGo is that it be­came good at Go sim­ply by play­ing it­self. Not by crunch­ing ev­ery sin­gle pos­si­ble move but by hav­ing some­thing ap­proach­ing in­tu­ition like a hu­man. It serves as a re­minder that although our show is still a bit far-fetched, it’s not as far away as you think...”

un­cer­tain fu­ture

And that, ul­ti­mately, is what was so pow­er­ful about Hu­mans, the sci-fi drama in which sub­servient ro­bots – “synths” – have be­come the must-have gad­get of mankind. Its de­but se­ries, adapted from Swedish show Real Hu­mans, tapped into a uni­ver­sal anx­i­ety about our reliance on tech­nol­ogy, and what it means for our fu­ture. How will ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence af­fect jobs? How will it af­fect fam­ily? How will it af­fect re­la­tion­ships, sex and love? How will it af­fect our place in so­ci­ety, in in­no­va­tion and art? What hap­pens when AI be­comes self-aware – what then? Across eight episodes, Hu­mans was able to ask all these ques­tions – and now, with se­ries two, it’s able to ask more. “Ev­ery year, as AI be­comes more and more ad­vanced, it un­der­stands us bet­ter and we un­der­stand it less,” says Vincent. “That has caused un­ease, and I think peo­ple are fi­nally ready to en­gage with that un­ease.” Spread across sev­eral sto­ry­lines, se­ries one of Hu­mans was – by and large – an en­sem­ble drama. Yet its driv­ing force was Anita, a synth played by Gemma Chan, prop­erty of the Hawkins fam­ily, headed by lawyer Laura (Kather­ine Parkinson) and hus­band Joe (Tom Good­man-Hill). Creepy and beau­ti­ful, some­thing was not quite right about Anita. She laughed at jokes wrong; she stood be­hind peo­ple eerily; she was a con­scious synth called Mia, trapped in the shell of a ma­chine. There were a whole group of con­scious synths in fact, cre­ated by a ge­nius called David El­ster, who had cracked the code of con­scious­ness. They are: the naive Max (Ivanno Jeremiah); the “Mona Lisa” of synths Fred (Sope Dirisu); Karen (Ruth Bradley), cre­ated to re­place El­ster’s late wife; El­ster’s part-synth son Leo (Colin Mor­gan); and the vi­o­lent and re­sent­ful Niska, played by Emily Ber­ring­ton.

It’s the lat­ter, of course, that you need to watch out for in se­ries two. For the last time we saw Niska she had stolen a copy of the con­scious­ness pro­gramme, and looked like she was go­ing to un­leash it upon the world. Are we set for a full-on synth rev­o­lu­tion? Vincent and Brack­ley, who are speak­ing to SFX over the phone, go quiet – they have been told to be care­ful about spoil­ers.

“Well,” laughs Vincent, “she’s lit the prospect but it’s a rel­a­tively slow-burn­ing process.”

“It’s a much more of a per­sonal story for Niska,” chips in Brack­ley.

Okay, but is it fair to say that, in se­ries two, the world will start to wake up to the idea of con­scious synths?

“Yes,” says Vincent. “The world is cer­tainly go­ing to have to start wak­ing up that.” He pauses. “Yes.”

That “yes” is a soft but fi­nal fin­ish, like the fall of a cur­tain. But let’s press on: the­o­ret­i­cally, how does he think the world would re­act to such a sce­nario?

“I think that there’s ab­so­lutely no doubt that a sce­nario like that would be widely feared,” he says, cau­tiously. “It would be chaotic – es­pe­cially as we’re de­pen­dent on the un­paid labour of these hun­dreds of mil­lions of ma­chines. If they were to change their na­ture in some way, it would be an ex­tremely trau­matic process for the world and one that many peo­ple would be ex­tremely keen to avoid...

“But I’m speak­ing the­o­ret­i­cally, of course.”

more ex­pan­sive

Set a few months after the events of se­ries one, se­ries two picks up in a world that’s more re­liant on synths than ever – and in a show that’s “big­ger, wider, broader – a more global story”.

This is a nod to­wards the show’s new­est and most ex­cit­ing cast mem­ber, Car­rie-Anne Moss, best known as Trin­ity from The Ma­trix. Her role as Dr Athena Mor­row, the world’s pre-em­i­nent AI ex­pert, will ex­pand the story to Cal­i­for­nia, where she’s hired by a young Sil­i­con Val­ley bil­lion­aire, played by Mar­shall All­man.

“His name is Milo Khoury,” ex­plains Vincent. “He’s one of those peo­ple who are driven by an am­bi­tion to trans­form the world. He has an idea and hires Dr Mor­row to help him with it; but she has a tragic se­cret, and some­thing very dif­fer­ent in mind from what he’s hired her to do. They are at the cen­tre of the big mys­tery which pro­pels the show.”

Se­ries two is not just go­ing wider in scale, how­ever; it will also open up its en­sem­ble.

“Se­ries one had that in­tense fo­cus in the Hawkins house,” says Brack­ley, “but that do­mes­tic psy­cho drama has opened out into some­thing broader and char­ac­ters who were slightly sec­ondary then now have their own sto­ries and are stand­ing on their own two feet.”

We say, ‘Here’s some­thing won­der­ful but also scary’

The specifics of cer­tain char­ac­ters are be­ing kept un­der wraps (the larger role of Laura Hawkins, for ex­am­ple, is top se­cret). Yet it can def­i­nitely be said that se­ries two will delve deeper into the lives and minds of con­scious synths, of which there are sev­eral new mem­bers to meet – “one of the most ex­cit­ing as­pects of the show,” ac­cord­ing to Vincent.

When it comes to the con­scious synths we al­ready know, se­ries two finds the AI fam­ily still on the run, but with most of them hid­ing in a cot­tage be­side the sea.

“There’s a de­gree more per­ma­nence to where they are now,” says Vincent. “Leo and Max are en­gaged in a new mis­sion. I can’t tell you the de­tails, but Leo is the kind of per­son who loses him­self in the cause. He can’t sit back and start think­ing about who he re­ally is.

“But Mia,” adds Brack­ley, “wants to get out there and live; to be around and in­ter­act with peo­ple. She’s on a jour­ney of per­sonal dis­cov­ery.”

If se­ries one was about com­ing to terms with con­scious­ness, then se­ries two seems to be about ex­plor­ing what be­ing con­scious ac­tu­ally means. And in Mia’s case, that means de­vel­op­ing feel­ings for a hu­man.

“The main theme of se­ries two,” says Vincent, “is about what is pos­si­ble and what is im­pos­si­ble in terms of love and friend­ship be­tween hu­mans and these ma­chines. We wanted to cover all kinds of re­la­tion­ships – ma­ter­nal, friend­ship, en­mity, love. You have synths hav­ing re­la­tion­ships with each other, hu­mans hav­ing re­la­tion­ships with other hu­mans that are af­fected be­cause of the ex­is­tence of synths, and then of course there are sev­eral ex­am­ples of hu­mans and synths hav­ing re­la­tion­ships with each other.”

In­deed, one of the more strik­ing el­e­ments of the first se­ries was in how it ex­plored the per­verse po­ten­tial of AI. We saw how synths like Niska are used in broth­els; we saw Joe – in the show’s most un­set­tling scene – ac­ti­vate the “over-18” func­tion of Anita. It begs the ques­tion: Al­phaGo may have Vincent and Brack­ley ex­cited that the world of Hu­mans is not that far-off, but is that nec­es­sar­ily a good thing?

“We’re ex­cited about find­ing out about the fu­ture even if there are some trou­bling as­pects to it,” an­swers Vincent. “If you think of any tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance, hu­mans will take that tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance and will use it for good and also use it for bad. Where would we be with­out the tele­phone? Peo­ple wouldn’t be able to speak to their loved ones in dif­fer­ent coun­tries. But yet we also wouldn’t have prank calls, and heavy breath­ing, and sex lines.

“But above all, what are we go­ing to do? Are we go­ing to stop in­no­vat­ing? We are not. We have to move for­ward. Our point of view is that it’s im­por­tant to work out where we are go­ing and what might hap­pen, and isn’t that what sci­ence fic­tion’s all about? The ex­plo­ration of what could hap­pen, what shouldn’t hap­pen?

Hu­mans tries to say, ‘Here’s some­thing won­der­ful but also scary and dark’ – and you can’t have one with­out the other when the world be­gins to change.”

Hu­mans is on Chan­nel 4 from the end of Oc­to­ber.

Max and Leo need a glazier. Joe and Laura believe in get­ting five-a-day.

Anita can some­how re­sist those cakes.

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