Midway through the recent movie Ex Machina, one computer programmer asks another why he invented a machine that can think, talk, and act like a human. “That’s an odd question,” replies the tech visionary played by Oscar Isaac. “Wouldn’t you, if you could?”
Judging from both fiction and the real world, mankind itself finds the question of “why” a silly one when it comes to the notion of artificial intelligence. Whether it’s Tony Stark engineering Ultron as much for world peace as for his own ego, or Apple relentlessly upgrading Siri so as to offer ever-more-precise brunch recommendations, machines seem destined to get smarter—as Isaac’s character says, “the arrival of strong artificial intelligence has been inevitable for decades. The variable was when, not if.”
AMC’s new show Humans underlines the simple fact that most people will get no say in whether the robots arrive, just as it’s always been with socially transformative technology. In its version of the present day, fake humans programmed to take orders from real ones have recently come to act as family maids, elderly caretakers, physical therapists, manual laborers, and prostitutes. Why? “The best reason to make machines more like people is to make people less like machines,” a TV talking head explains towards the end of the pilot. “The woman in China who works 11 hours a day, stitching footballs; the boy in Bangladesh inhaling poison as he breaks up a ship for scrap; the miner in Bolivia risking death every time he goes to work—they can all be part of the past.” The immediately apparent irony is that those words are being taken in by a middle-class English family whose newly bought “synth,” Anita, is cooking dinner in the other room. Dad rifles through the instructional literature that came with it—her?—and lingers on an “Adult Options, 18+” pamphlet.