The robot discourse has changed dramatically since the first season of Humans was on air in 2015. This is mainly because HBO premiered Westworld last spring, a mindscrew of a show that used robots to dig deep into the nature of consciousness and the metaphysical requirements of a soul. Humans, while also very much about the nature of consciousness, is not so esoteric in its exploration.
The first episode of the second season premiered this week on AMC in the US (it’s already aired in its entirety in Australia). Given the immense success of Westworld, it’s probably best to start by explaining what Humans is not. There aren’t any orgies to speak of, nor is there much violence. Robots, called Synths, don’t specifically exist for humans to indulge their worst video game fantasies; instead, they’re as ubiquitous as iPhones, serving as maids, miners, babysitters and companions. Most importantly, Humans is a very linear, meat-and-potatoes story about the ethical dilemmas of artificial intelligence, but by no means does that make Humans a simpler show than Westworld.
Humans focuses on two families, one flesh-and-blood, and one made up of Synths who actually have sentience, and are on the run from those that fear — probably rightfully so — that if all Synths gain consciousness, there will be an uprising. The two families are connected by Mia (Gemma Chan), who joined the Hawkins family as a servant after having her mind wiped, but regained her sentience by the end of last season. Both families also have radical, rebellious daughters who would very much like to bring consciousness to every single robot on the planet.
In the Synth family, that “daughter” is Niska (Emily Berrington), who starts season two by releasing a virus that should make all Synths conscious. Curiously Niska’s plan for robo-anarchy doesn’t go as planned. Instead of the bringing about the sudden onset of consciousness across the world, her fellow robots gain their autonomy one at a time, at random.
It’s a neat accidental parallel to Westworld, which saw the same sort of fits and spurts of consciousness occur. And like Westworld, the lives of the robots are so carefully monitored that humans sweep in almost as soon as the Synths gain sentience. There’s no time for them to marvel at the natural world before the robots are thrust into the underground war between sentient AI and its creators.
Niska, believing her plan failed, has no idea that her siblings are now stuck in a race against the humans to collect and guide the newly sentient robots. So she has a new plan — to turn herself in for the murder of an abusive client when she worked in a brothel in season one, in an attempt to force the court (and thus humanity) to recognise Synth rights in general and her sentience specifically. As such, she seeks out Katharine Parkinson’s flesh-and-blood matriarch/lawyer Laura Hawkins for her help defending her in court. Which means this season of Humans isn’t just about the continued trek of artificial sentience through a world that abhors it — it also puts the very concept on trial, much like Star Trek did way back in “Measure of a Man”.
This makes Humans an interesting companion piece to Westworld. The shows work wonderfully in tandem, examining the nature of AI from two very different, but entertaining, angles. It may not have the various mysteries and shocking reveals, but that just means Humans can devote all its time to exploring exactly what it would mean in modern society for an entire class to suddenly become… well, human.
So if you’re pining for the highbrow ethical debates of Westworld — or if you’re interested in its subject matter, but got tired of mazes and timelines and the overabundant HBO-ness of it all, do yourself a favour and check in with Humans. It deserves to be seen just as much.