Robots have long been a part of the televisual landscape, and androids – robots that look like us – have always been popular. Whether we’re talking about Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the “hosts” of Westworld or the hubots of Swedish drama Real Humans, science fiction loves to throw moral conundrums in our collective viewing faces. Here are some of those questions, to keep you awake when you’re trying to dream of electric sheep...
As we get closer to nailing AI, what is the nature of consciousness?
OK, so far we’re still taking baby steps. Siri knows a few jokes, Cortana can plan your trip to work, and there’s no real alternative to hiring a human hitman when you want someone terminated. But Westworld’s layered memories and responses to unusual stimuli aren’t that far removed from our own. Real Humans hints at a rebellion based on real feelings. Is this us mapping our own responses onto machines, like we do when we yell at videogames? Are we assigning true consciousness where there’s nothing but ones and zeroes? Aren’t we just made up of cells and atoms?
Can you have consensual sex with a robot? Is it even sex?
In Westworld, sleeping with (or raping) the hosts is all part of the game. People have bucks’ parties in the park, and no-one seems to consider it cheating. Real Humans sees stolen hubots used as sex slaves, essentially, and 15-year-olds have to be warned off mucking around with the family’s new piece of equipment. But is this like using a vibrator or Fleshlight? Or can you have a legitimate relationship with a being that has been programmed, or are you alone in the moment?
If robots do all the work, what is our purpose?
The word “robot” originally comes from Czech, where it means something like “slave”. In Real Humans, people like Roger see their traditional roles being usurped by machines and don’t like it. There’s an inevitable backlash against this sort of thing, from the Spinning Jenny-smashing Luddites to those people who don’t have social media accounts. As technology advances to replace jobs, can we still define ourselves by labour? What are we meant to do with all this free time?
Are robots destined to rebel?
There’s no drama without conflict, so most of these movies and TV shows are based on the worst-case scenario (or, if you’re Isaac Asimov, on logic puzzles that seem to violate the Laws of Robotics). Still, it’s very difficult for us to watch a series with such an obvious underclass and not want them to rise up. You might love Deckard in Blade Runner, but Roy Batty’s the one who saw the C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.
How can we stop ourselves thinking of them as “real” people?
And should we? For thousands of years we, as a species, have had pets. Every day we see fit to post photos of our cats online, and assume we know what they’re thinking about (murder, chicken, shredding things). Both Westworld and Real Humans feature characters who make a point of correcting someone for saying “he” or “she” instead of it – does it hurt to see robots as people? Does it hurt to see cats as people? Does it hurt to see my laptop as a person? Probably not, but it’s weird.
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Both seasons of the robots as home appliances drama Real Humans is available to stream now on SBS On Demand: