THE REVOLUTION WILL BE MECHANISED... THE SYNTHS GO GLOBAL IN HUMANS SEASON TWO, AS STEPHEN KELLY DISCOVERS
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...”
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.”
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.