From Ex Machina to Terminator Genisys, ‘synths’ and robots have invaded our popular culture. But how real is the reel depiction of artificial intelligence?
Ian Sample writes: The harried parents in one family in the Channel 4 drama Humans are divided about having a robot called Anita.
The father is delighted with the extra help; the mother unnerved and threatened. The teenage daughter, bright and hardworking, gives up at school after wondering why she would spend seven years to become a doctor, when a “Synth” could upload the skills in as many seconds. The teenage son, of course, is preoccupied with the sexual possibilities.
The thriller has become the biggest home-made drama on Channel 4 for more than two decades, according to viewing figures published this week, and is the latest to explore what has been described as perhaps the greatest existential threat the human race has ever faced, artificial intelligence: the idea that computers will start thinking for themselves and not much like what they see when they cast their eyes on their creators.
The humanoid robots in Humans are not portrayed as good or evil but are dropped into suburbia, where the crises they cause are domestic: disrupting relationships, employment aspirations, and feelings of freedom.
It is a theme that has increasingly attracted screenwriters. In the 2013 film, Her, Joaquin Phoenix, falls in love with his computer’s intelligent operating system. In Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s directorial debut, a young coder must administer the Turing test to an AI robot called Ava with deadly results. There is also the release of Terminator Genisys the fifth instalment of the series, in which humans are forever trying to prevent a future world destroyed by the machines.
“We didn’t want to make a judgement on this world, but offer up the pros and cons in a world where synths exist and let our audience decide: is it good or bad?” Jonathan Brackley, one of the writers of Humans, told the Guardian. Co-writer, Sam Vincent, who worked with Brackley on Spooks, adds: “At the heart of the show is the question, does something have to be human for someone to have human feelings about it? The answer to us is no.”
The series plays out the consequences of human-like artificial intelligence in the humdrum reality of modern life, but Vincent and Brackley see parallels with our increasing attachment to electronic devices. “Technology used to be just for work. But we use it more than ever now to conduct every aspect of our lives. We are more intimate with it, and it understands us more, even as we understand it less,” says Vincent.
“There’s this very speculative human-like AI side to the series, and a completely real side of what our technology is doing to our emotional lives, our relationships, and society at large,” he adds.
Apocalyptic pronouncements from scientists and entrepreneurs have driven the surge in interest. It was the inventor Elon Musk who last year said artificial intelligence might be the greatest existential threat that humans faced. Stephen Hawking joined in the chorus, warning that the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race. The same year, the Oxford scientist Nick Bostrom, published the thoughtful book Superintelligence, in which he made similarly gloomy predictions.
Concerns about the consequences of creating an intelligence that matches, or far exceeds, our own are not entirely new. Read the rest of this entry »