IEET > Rights > Personhood > GlobalDemocracySecurity > Vision > Bioculture > Advisory Board > Adrian Cull > Sociology > Psychology > Artificial Intelligence > Cyber
Adrian Cull   Aug 8, 2015   Ethical Technology  

The new television show Humans raises some important ethical questions for a not-too-distant future society where human-looking domestic robots are commonplace. The 8 part series, shown on AMC in the US and Channel 4 in the UK, is based on the Swedish series Äkta människor (“Real Humans”) and is set in modern day London with the only discernible difference being that a company is manufacturing and selling “synths” – multi-purpose robots designed to look like humans and work as direct replacements for them. The drama tackles a wide range of questions from how synths would be treated and their impact on society, alongside the main story line of what happens if the artificially intelligent humanoids gain true self awareness and consciousness.

The show also goes into detail on the practicalities of purchasing and using such robots. When first collecting a synth the new owner has to activate it with a series of code words and then shake hands to provide it with a DNA sample of the “primary user” who can give instructions and assign secondary users. Makes sense otherwise anyone could steal a synth by telling it to follow them. The synth then reads out a user agreement including stating that the data will never be shared – but if it’s an electronic format somewhere then you have to assume its hackable.

factory lineAs general purpose robots will need to work in a human environment, rather than factory robots that are limited to certain functions and specific places, it’s realistic that they will need to be humanoid in shape. Once they start looking similar to humans then their designers will probably make them look as human as possible to avoid the “uncanny valley” where people tend to have an aversion to something that is slightly distorted from a healthy person. If they are all functionally the same then some people may be uncomfortable choosing a model based on its sex or colour, as what should that have to do with anything, though others may be happy to specify a bespoke version to look like a deceased loved one.

In Humans, not only do the synths look like humans they are able to understand natural language and speak in Siri-like methodical English. So if it looks like a human and quacks like a human then it’s no surprise that people start treating them as humans and nurture a variety of feelings for them.

Even though it’s clear Anita, the main synth in the show, is just a robot, from the start the mother of the family insists that the children treat her with respect rather than like a slave. This is amplified when Anita is run over by a van whilst trying to protect the son – even though she was following her programmed rules the entire family now wants to prevent any harm coming to her, or it.

But it’s not all positive feelings.  Having a perfect helper in the house also makes others aware of their own human imperfections. At a simple level this is the resignation that Anita will always cook a perfect meal for the family, something the mother regularly fails at, but is felt more intensely with the caring for the youngest daughter. A synth is never tired after work, has endless time and patience to play with her and never loses her temper. In one scene the daughter wants Anita to read her a bedtime story instead of her mother – which only gets worse when the synth persuades the daughter to change her mind to make her mother feel better. With teenagers today worrying that they don’t live up to the airbrushed models on the front of magazines, and adults comparing their successes in life with the fortunate few, will synthetic humans be yet another unobtainable goal to aspire to?

Robot Sex And Abuse

The series also confronts head on the question of sex with humanoid robots - from the teenage son, Toby, being fascinated by Anita’s figure to utilizing synths in brothels.

With a plan to discover what everyone teenage boy wants to know – what it’s like to touch a female body – Toby creeps downstairs one night while Anita is charging with the intention of touching her, only to be informed that any inappropriate contact would be reported to the primary user – his Dad! Later at a house party other teenagers get round this problem by turning their synth off first which Mattie, the teenage daughter, argues is still rape.

After a slightly convoluted legal requirement forces the Dad, Joe, to examine Anita naked this plants a seed in his mind which results one night, when he is feeling low, to enable the “adult options” on Anita using some more code phrases, although I suspect in reality the company would also be asking for his credit card details for the extra features! When his wife finds out that then raises the question of whether he has been adulterous - which is very dependent on whether one views the synths as humans or just well designed multi-purpose tools capable of everything from washing up to being a sex toy.

niskaAs prostitution and brothels exist pretty much everywhere, and are legal in some countries, it’s almost unconceivable that perfectly formed humanoid robots would not be put to work in the sex industry. They don’t have feelings, or feel fear or humiliation. Of course as their artificial brains become closer and closer to consciousness this might not be so clear cut.

And as well as brothels where people can carry out their sexual desires and fantasies, one scene in the drama is set at a “smash club” where people can release their violent tendencies too. In the modern day equivalent of bare knuckle fighting the humans are armed with a range of weapons and attack the synths who only attempt to avoid each blow with no risk of retaliation or fighting back.

Impacts on Society

One of the early scenes shows synths handing out free newspapers, serving in shops and tending to public parks, highlighting how many manual jobs could be replaced by such technology. The police even use synths to man (synth?) their phone lines and respond to simple activities such as collecting lost property.

nurseThe drama also has several synths involved with healthcare. An aging character called George owns a first generation synth that he is emotionally attached to partially because of its perfect memory recall, so as George slowly loses his memory the synth, Odi, is able to remind him of more pleasant times with his now deceased wife. A sub story also develops here with the National Health Service (the UK’s free government healthcare system) purchasing half a million synths including one that they want to replace Odi with. The new models are able to monitor heart rate and blood pressure remotely and can communicate directly with the patient’s GP for dietary and lifestyle advice. This raises the question of how do robots balance obeying instructions and preventing harm to humans? George is not the carebot’s primary user meaning its instructions to look after his health can border on physical restraint to prevent him harming himself by simply being outside in the cold.

With the world’s aging population and regular scandals regarding the level of care provided to the infirm, some of which must be driven by the low wages paid to carers, the healthcare industry would be an ideal application for humanoid robots in the real world. And in fact what manual jobs would not be good candidates for replacement with cheaper, more reliable, more accurate synths? Mattie, the teenage daughter, raises the question of why would she bother training for years to be a heart surgeon when a synth could be programmed to do it in minutes?

we are peopleThe TV drama hints at the mass reaction to synths with “we are people” demonstrations and political speakers demanding jobs for humans using similar language to that used to argue against immigration today. But perhaps mass production of cheap labour would have a real impact. Try to think of a job that a cheap synth could not be used for - transportation, retail, catering, construction – even management, teaching and finance jobs. Let alone the military which opens up a whole new can of ethics.

How would the job market fare and what would be the effect on unemployment? What would all of those people do without a job? Would alternate jobs be created in the same way they were when lamplighters were no longer needed to light gas street lamps in the technological revolution of its day? But whatever innovations happened in the employment market would they still not be filled by even more better, faster, stronger synths?

With an abundance of workers we would need to rely on a fair distribution of global wealth so that working was no longer a requirement to survive and prosper. Perhaps the cost of living would drop so dramatically that everyone could lead a life of leisure. But would that only apply to people above the threshold of affording a synth in the first place? Those people would benefit from the extra time either to improve themselves or to generate more wealth, however those without a synth would never be able to catch up as their wages dwindled.

Artificial Consciousness

The main plot of the gripping TV series is based around half a dozen synths who were made differently in that they experience emotions and consciousness. They are aware of themselves and have a range of personalities from the amiable Max to the combative Niska and each with different views on trusting humans and whether their special species should survive. With self awareness one might think they would want to survive, but one of the synths wants them all (including herself) to be destroyed. Perhaps this is similar to the anti-suffragism movement where in the UK alone hundreds of thousands of women signed a petition that they should not be given the vote.

If the normal synths had more realistic personalities it would likely affect how they were treated – people would grow attached to them even more if they thought they had feelings and could feel mental, if not physical, pain. In Humans there is a clear distinction between the conscious and non- conscious synths, but imagine if this line was more blurred. As artificial programming improves the synths personalities would become more and more human and probably comfortably pass the Turing test. At what point would we decide they were self-aware? At what point would we say they felt real emotions? At what point would we decide they have human rights? The Nonhuman Rights Project already campaigns for legal rights for other animal species so some people would campaign similarly for beings that are even more similar to themselves. Or would it even be humans campaigning? Perhaps synth lawyers, who could research and analyse thousands of times more case law and legislation than any human, would prepare their own case to take to the Supreme Court.

There would certainly be some overlap of humanity. In the show one of the synths sacrifices himself by jumping into the river to help a friend escape – how many humans would do the same? Is a bigoted, violent or dishonest human always more worthy than a caring, considerate, artificial being? As the synth-human hybrid Leo explains “humanity, it’s not a state, it’s a quality.”

How close are we?

It’s good that the general public is being prompted to think about the ethics of humanoid robots in society, rather than only academics and philosophers, as this may only be a decade away from reality. This year’s DARPA challenge demonstrated that the capability of bipedal robots has come a long way with the ability to drive simple vehicles, open doors and use human tools – although still very much in the prototype stage with the exponential growth of technology their abilities will quickly improve and their price rapidly drop.

synthsLikewise the voice recognition and natural response capabilities of the fictional synths is only a few upgrades away from where Siri, Cortona and Google Now are today. And the impact on jobs has already started with the Henn-na Hotel in Japan employing far fewer staff than would be required without its humanoid receptionists and robot porters.

Every year we’re getting closer to the scenario played out in Humans. With the average person spending 1-2 hours per day on household chores the demand would certainly be there for the right price. At some point an Apple-like company will decide to get in first and mass produce a well designed, affordable, home helping robot similar to those in the series. And then it will be interesting to see how many of the problems and benefits dreamt up by the writers really do come true.

Adrian Cull is the founder of the Live Forever Club which monitors advances in life extension technology as well as longevity and health research, translating these findings into practical tips for living forever.


Update Jan 2016:
Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot looks like Anita v0.1 - not quite ready for beta testing but can use a vacuum cleaner!

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: Enhancing Humans, Advancing Humanity

Previous entry: The TV Series Humans: A Deep Look into Our Humanity