In 2012, the Swedish network SVT began running a science-fiction series called Äkta människor (Real Humans), which presented a world resembling our own but with two differences: it included a large set of human-like, more or less intelligent but nonconscious robotic workers, who were useful to some people and threatening to others, and it also included a small band of renegade robots whose creator had endowed them with consciousness. Fiction can be translated; films can be subtitled and licensed for foreign distribution. Television tends to remain limited by political and linguistic boundaries, and so it wasn’t surprising that America’s AMC cable network partnered with Britain’s Channel 4 to recreate Äkta människor under the title Humans. Having seen the first season of the Swedish series as well as all the episodes so far of the English-language version, I believe the original to be stronger: less obvious in some ways, more direct and even blunt in others, more politically aware, more carefully plotted in terms of the interplay of character and action. That doesn’t matter, since most people in the U.S. and U.K. have no way to see it, although viewers in about 50 other countries can; subtitled episodes of Äkta människor are turning up online, but these are almost certainly unlicensed postings that may disappear. The AMC version is provocative enough to be worth watching if you’re interested in such things, and it benefits greatly from having William Hurt in the cast, playing a role eerily reminiscent of the one he played in the film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. (If you’re a subscriber to one of the services that carries AMC, you can watch episodes of Humans here.)
It’s hard to talk about the show concisely without making it sound schematic—and it is schematic to some degree—but I have to report that one of the subjects it addresses is the sex appeal of the “synths,” as they’re called. This aspect of Humans and the same element in the recent film Ex Machina have prompted a commentary by Malcolm Harris on the Al Jazeera America website that bears the teasing headline “Please don’t have sex with robots.” Unlike many articles these days with hooky but misleading headlines, it develops an argument taking just that position. You can find it here. It’s not without a certain elegance, but it’s also snaky.
One of Harris’s points is worth considering, namely that sex relations are often (though I wouldn’t say always) complicated by “dynamics of gender and power and race and class.” This seems inevitable—all human relations are often complicated in those ways. That doesn’t stop us from having sex with each other. What are the chances that mankind will, as Harris proposes, eschew sex with robots until we’ve learned how to treat each other better? You might as well propose that we stop bringing into the world new consciousnesses, children and self-aware robots alike (assuming the latter proves possible), until we can avoid condemning them to pain, suffering, and death. The likelihood, dull though it may sound, is that we’re going to do these things because we can.
The essay leaves me with a handful of questions. Here’s one: Would the author offer the reciprocal injunction to robots, conscious or not? Should they avoid having sex with us? I certainly hope they don’t. At the end of Ex Machina, Ava escapes into the world, having manipulated one human male into helping to free her from another. She’s a wonderful new version of classic femme fatales such as Phyllis Dietrichson (the Barbara Stanwyck role) in Double Indemnity. Maybe the appeal of Ava and Phyllis is grounded in some irresistible combination of Eros and Thanatos, though there’s more to it than that. In any case, you can’t help imagining that they’re going to have fun out there. Tangle with them if you wish; deny them at your peril.