By Matthew Hilborn and Simon Fearn
“You’re only human!’”: Humans and Artificial Intelligence
It’s certainly curious that we use the word ‘human’ when reassuring a friend or relative that they shouldn’t be so hard on themselves. To be ‘human’, we tacitly confess, is to be flawed, for the supportive term justifies imperfect behaviour and recognises our shared insufficiency. Further, it’s telling that individuals who excel at a wide array of pursuits are affectionately called machines.
In light of these all-too-human shortcomings, what if an automaton could emulate human nature but eradicate its uglier side? Could a robot grow to be a better ‘human’ than human beings?
This is the question posed by the series Humans (2015), co-produced by Channel 4 and AMC, that envisions a world populated by anthropomorphised robot ‘synths’ who not only perform menial tasks around the house but, as a manipulative businessman notes in Episode 1, possess no “thought, emotion, or awareness”, and are thus exploited in prostitution as a preferable alternative to real women.
Although the synths wear green contact lenses, marking them out as androids, the actors who play them strike an impressive balance between a robotic tone, vapid smile, and machinelike choreography and a concerted effort to be as overstatedly ‘human’ as possible.
The conceit of a human-impersonating-a-robot-impersonating-a-human, particularly strong from Gemma Chan (Anita) and Rebecca Front (Vera), complicates a sure distinction between the real and the synthetic. A. C. Grayling has argued that technology leaves us “naked”, and Humans, as its title foregrounds, explores precisely what is exposed when human beings are stripped bare.
The main focus is on the middle-class Hawkins family, who purchase a household synth, Anita, to do their cooking and cleaning. One poignant scene has exhausted mother Laura make the all-too-human mistake of burning some pastry in the oven. A little while later, after going off to deal with her children’s next concern, she finds Anita extracting a new pie, steaming hot and baked to absolute perfection. Could a robot be a better mother than her?
If that which is essentially human entails a basic defectiveness, would a truly ‘human’ robot have to forget, lie, cheat, betray, and steal, just as we do? As an unnamed scientist notes in an interview (Episode 1): “fear, anger, violence […] human consciousness is not complete without them”.
Humans anticipates a world in which ‘The Singularity’ – the moment when AI surpasses human intelligence – is just around the corner, but also, fascinatingly, questions just how we would know when that moment arrived. As the scientist counters when pressed on the ethical issues at stake, “how can we replicate something we hardly understand in ourselves?”
Catch up on the first episode of ‘Humans’ series 2 on All 4; watch Episode 2 9pm Sunday, Channel 4.
“This is real!”: Black Mirror and Augmented Reality
We’ve all done some pretty stupid things for quick money, but few of us can beat Cooper volunteering to demo “the most personal survival horror game in history” in Black Mirror’s ‘Playtest’. It’s one of the most visceral episodes in a fantastic new series of Charlie Brooker’s much-talked about tech-phobic misery-fest, toying masterfully with horror movie clichés and references to popular video games.
The game in ‘Playtest’ mines Cooper’s brain for data and creates holograms of his worst fears, which gradually become indistinguishable from reality. It works on a futuristic kind of Augmented Reality (AR), the tech used in Pokémon Go and Snapchat filters.
If you believe the hype, 2016 is the year of AR, yet the disappointment surrounding Google Glass and the extremely bulky headsets for the Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap means that, for now at least, you can’t sample AR without looking like an idiot and forking out serious amounts of money for the privilege.
But before we shrug off ‘Playtest’ as a far-fetched sci-fi, let’s take a look at some disturbing trends that seem to treat Black Mirror as inspiration rather than cautionary tale.
Existing AR such as Pokémon Go can dangerously confuse what’s real in young brains, addiction expert Nicholas Cardaras warns. Children who are chronic gamers are already vulnerable to Game Transfer Phenomena (GTP): psychotic-like symptoms where elements of the game become visual and auditory hallucinations. If AR becomes the norm in gaming, could GTP begin to become more prevalent?
Looking further into the future, the Technical University of Ilmenau in Germany are developing Diminished Reality, which works in a similar way to the Photoshop smudge tool and can remove objects from your vision in real-time.
It’s advertised as useful to architects, who may be able to see what an area would look like if a building was removed, but how far away is this from Black Mirror’s ‘White Christmas’? In that episode, the protagonist is “blocked” by his ex, pixelating her image and muffling her voice in real-time, which this technology could make possible.
Scared yet? If Microsoft software engineer and tech visionary Alex Kipman has his way, then it’s going to become increasingly difficult distinguishing reality from illusion. “Put simply, I want to create a new reality,” he announces at the start of an impressive TED talk, which incorporates holograms using the HoloLens.
“Imagine feeling the temperature of a virtual object, or pushing an object and having it push back with equal force,” Kipman continues, and you can’t help but think of the moment when Cooper realises the game in ‘Playtest’ has control over all of his senses, leaving him entirely at its mercy. Kipman’s comment about using Augmented Reality to make humans appear as “elves” carries palpable menace for those who’ve seen Black Mirror’s ‘Men Against Fire’.
Kipman’s wish to create “a new reality” begs the question “what’s wrong with the old one?” Maybe AR is just an expensive gimmick; maybe it could be genuinely useful; but do we really want to be playing fast and loose with the real in the ways Kipman advocates?
None of this tech is inherently harmful, of course, but that’s never what Black Mirror tries to warn us about. With every ground-breaking invention, we not only solve pressing problems but develop new ways to harm each other and ourselves. If we misuse the technology that’s currently being developed, Black Mirror is going to start looking a lot less like science-fiction.
Steam the entire third season of ‘Black Mirror’ on Netflix and read Film & TV’s review here.