Descartes’ explanation of pain and motion
[SPOILER ALERT: this post talks of the British drama Humans and of the Swedish drama Äkta människor]
[Parts of this post have already been published in 2013 on my Italian blog]
I have watched the first three episodes of Humans, the Channel 4 tv series inspired by a Swedish tv series, Äkta människor (Real Humans in English). I must say I expected something better. To explain why, I will extensively talk about the Swedish version of the series, to give the idea of what my expectations were and still are.
The plot of the original Swedish drama, which is composed of two seasons of 10 episodes each and whose extension for another season is still uncertain, unfolds around the hubots (instead called synths in the British version), technologically advanced androids that almost exactly physically resemble humans, if it were not for their glowing eyes, their skin free from imperfections, and their need to recharge via a simple electric cable or a USB cable. These robots are used for household chores or for hard work, they cannot lie, they are subject to the Asimov laws of robotics and they can be turned off at any time using a button typically placed under the left armpit. However, there are also free or liberated hubots, that move independently, without a master, and who (or which?) at first glance may make autonomous choices and also behave aggressively or friendly in relation to humans. In short, although they are created and designed as machines, they do not behave, at least at first sight, automatically or mechanically, but instead make their choices and are apparently free. The story, which takes place between levels of everyday family life or of police investigations on one hand, on the other hand, it raises philosophical, legal, ethical and existential issues, and the Cartesian problem of what differentiates man – who has his own mind and his own free will and at the same time a body that performs many functions without the need for a conscious intervention – by the automaton which, although technologically refined, is unconscious, still lies in the background. In other words: what if we ourselves are machines? Are humans really different from hubots/synths or, rather, are they both different types of complicated machines, or are both sorts of beings that in some way can develop forms of freedom? These questions imply many others.
Think, for instance, of a relationship between a human and a robot equipped with something like an artificial intelligence: you can also concede that the sexual aspect of it seems less important than others, as smaller and less technologically advanced objects (but still, objects!) have already been used for a long time to satisfy the pleasures of intimacy, but the emotional issues look really more problematic. If you can even, indeed, come to admit that you can love a machine virtually indistinguishable from a human being, can you, however, be truly loved by a robot? Or is it simply a result of biochemical processes and neuronal interactions in humans, and a code, an algorithm in the software of a robot? Or again: what to think of an act of violence perpetrated by a human on a hubot-style robot? Have these androids feelings, desires, needs and even intangible rights to be recognized and protected? Inger Egman, a lawyer, asks a liberated hubot «What makes you special?», and rightfully the hubot replies «What makes you special?».
Here, watching this series, which is narratively enjoyable because of the mysteries that are revealed only over time and that make it clear why hubots are free, why they hide and what are their plans, we are faced with issues that might seem abstract but which in reality could take hold in everyday life in a world where technology and automation are increasingly progressing, questioning the viewer – as well as Descartes questioned – on the old problem of dualism between body and soul, personal identity, of what the real human specificity is (if it is at all) or if it is that men and women are, after all, just complicated and sophisticated mechanisms that delude themselves talking about soul and freedom.
The British version of this drama seems to be lacking some depth. Do not be mistaken: the Swedish edition is all but a boring series revolving around the complex interaction between humans and non-humans, as there is, actually, plenty of actions, arguments, dramatic turns of events and a number of interesting situation. The thing is that perhaps, at the moment (that is, after three episodes have been aired), Humans characters do not appear to be completely able to give the same idea of complexity that the original ones are able to. Consider the third episode, for example, in which Toby (the second son of Joe and Laura Hawkins) is upset by the fact that his mother is returning Anita to the synths shop where she (it?) had been bought. We had only seen, previously, that he tried to see what was under Anita’s skirt, with no psychological development of the issue. In the Swedish series, the emotional and physical attraction of the same character to Anita takes place with more attention to feelings as well as to its social acceptance: can one be robotsexual? Is it a disturb or not? What schoolmates would think of it? And so on.
The plot of the story in the English-language version is not exactly the same, and perhaps I am affected by the fact that I already know – or, at least, I assume I already know – what will be going on sooner or later. Still, I think the two first seasons of the original Swedish drama appear slightly better than its Channel 4 remake – at least after having watched the first three episodes.